Floods extend school year for some; districts deal with displaced students

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Students in the Egyptian School District return to school today, nearly two weeks after historic floods washed out classes and some of the communities the school system serves.

For many of the students, the classroom will be the one dry, stable home they can count on -- for the foreseeable future anyway.

The story has played out in several school districts in the flood-ravaged region, from Cairo, Ill., to East Prairie, Mo., where scores of students, teachers and administrators return to school with no homes to go back to, homes buried under the muck, mud and the mold the rivers left behind.

Egyptian School District -- including the hard-hit Illinois towns of Olive Branch, Tamms and Unity -- canceled classes nine consecutive days, beginning at 1 p.m. April 26.

With so much damage, particularly in Olive Branch where the floodwaters swallowed up many of the homes in the community of about 800 people, school officials aren't sure just how many of the district's 550 students will be able to return to school today.

"To tell you the truth, we really don't know how many will come back. It's hard to say," said Danny McCrite, principal of Egyptian Elementary School, with an enrollment of about 245 students. "We're just going to see what happens and go from there."

Residents along Highway 3 in Olive Branch were continuing to assess the damage to their homes over the weekend; many properties were a total loss, even as the water remained at front doors.

The East Prairie School District missed four days of classes last week during the peak of the flooding, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers detonated the Birds Point-New Madrid levee. Most of the schools, situated on higher ground, remained dry, although the alternative education building at the high school took on water, an administrator said. The hope is to clean up the school and reopen for class Wednesday.

The school system includes students from Dorena and Wolf Island, little communities located in the heart of the 130,000-acre floodway deluged by the levee's breach. Such displacement could cost East Prairie enrollment and its primary source of school funding, said Donna Smith, principal at Martin Elementary, a school of about 350 students in third through sixth grades.

"Those farmers in the floodway employ a large number of people. A good portion of students some way or some how are connected with that floodway," Smith said. "What are they going to do? Where are they going to go?"

Martin Elementary School secretary Linda McIntosh said some families who depend on jobs in the floodway might be forced to find employment elsewhere.

"I feel we may have a lot of movement out of the district," she said.

A significant portion of the school district's taxable land is in the fertile floodway -- with millions of dollars of assessed value now under water.

The value of this farmland is estimated at $300 million by the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Net cash income from farming in Mississippi County was $39 million in the last agricultural census in 2007.

The Center for Economic & Business Research at Southeast Missouri State University's estimates labor income in Mississippi County could decline by about $12 million, roughly 9 percent of the county's total labor income. Total revenue/sales in the county could decline by $93.45 million, or 14.4 percent, according to numbers worked up by Bruce Domazlicky, the center's director.

"We don't have a lot of industry in our school district," Smith said. "Everything else is ag-based, from the fertilizer companies to the Delta Growers Association, those places all depend on our farmers, as do the grocery store, the restaurants. Farmers in there working in the floodway spent money in those areas."

East Prairie Mayor Kevin Mainord agreed.

"That is our factory, and right now it's 10 foot under water," he said.

The East Prairie School District will extend the school year by three days, with classes scheduled through May 27.

Just like the the blizzards that forced the cancellation of school in districts throughout Missouri this winter, floods fall under the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's inclement weather policy.

"The state law forgiveness rule allows a school district to make up 10 school days; any days missed beyond that can be forgiven," said DESE spokeswoman Michele Clark.

In the Egyptian School District, the flood-related school cancellations are covered under Illinois' "Act of God Days," and the lost time does not have to be made up.

Despite the heavy property losses, administrators in the flooded areas say their schools will more than likely incorporate the historic flood of 2011 into their curricula.

"This is history-making and there are a lot of students that are involved in it," McCrite said, noting the hundreds of Egyptian School District students who volunteered in the flood fight.

mkittle@semissourian.com

388-3627

Pertinent address:

20023 Diswood Road, Tamms, IL

510 Wilkinson Street, East Prairie, MO

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