Kentucky superintendents provide updates, share experiences from recent tornadoes
(FRANKFORT, KY) – Following devastating tornadoes that ripped through Western Kentucky on Dec. 10-11, superintendents from the impacted districts provided updates from their local communities during the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) Dec. 14 Superintendents Webcast.
Mayfield Independent Superintendent Joe Henderson described the days following the storms as the hardest thing he has ever had to deal with in his life, but said he has been overwhelmed with the outpouring of support the district has received not only from Kentucky, but throughout the country.
“We truly appreciate the support and ask that you continue to pray for our community,” he said.
On the night of the storm, Henderson said up to 200 community members sought refuge in Mayfield High School’s gymnasium.
“They were walking the streets with nowhere to go,” he said.
Now, the gymnasium that housed its community is packed with donated supplies.
The Mayfield Independent District has three schools, and the middle school was the only school that received damage during the storm, and it was minor, Henderson said. However, the district’s transportation and maintenance department was completely destroyed. None of Mayfield’s school buses are usable at this time, and Henderson doesn’t believe any of them are salvageable.
“I want to thank all the districts that have reached out and offered buses to help,” Henderson said. “… I’ll just be honest with you right now, and it’s strange for me to say this, but school is the furthest thing from my mind right now.
“We have people that are trying to survive.”
There are community members with no heat, no food and no water, Henderson said.
“That’s our main concern right now,” he said.
Dawson Springs Independent
Like Mayfield Independent, Dawson Springs also opened its school to those who sought shelter from the storms, including the district’s superintendent, Leonard Whalen.
“Literally within 30 minutes of (the storm) hitting, our school automatically turned into a triage center,” Whalen said. “We had folks coming in there who were basically looking for help. Some of them were wounded fairly seriously. Others were wounded, but not as seriously. From that point forward, Dawson Springs High School kind of became the epicenter of response for Dawson Springs.”
Hours after the storm had passed, the district began receiving donations, ranging from clothing and food to bottled water.
“Our cafeteria area is probably as stocked as most stores out there right now just with items that we’ve been distributing,” Whalen said.
Tuesday was the first day the community began to come to the district seeking help.
“We were almost overrun with donations,” Whalen said. “Literally, car load and trailer load one after the other.”
Whalen said he receives up to 700 emails and texts from throughout the state daily, many of which are people wanting to send donations to the district.
“Please, hold that thought,” he said. “We’ll need it, we just don’t need it right now. It may be a week, it may be a couple of weeks before we’re probably going to need that. Just not right this second, because we are so overwhelmed with everything that has come in.”
Warren County Public Schools
Over the weekend, Warren County had two tornadoes go through its community. Superintendent Rob Clayton said the district’s focus right now is ensuring everyone is accounted for.
From a human element, Clayton said the biggest challenge is still being in “recovery mode,” but the support the district has received has been “unbelievable.”
“We’re just very thankful,” Clayton said. “Our colleagues throughout the state are second to none, and that part certainly doesn’t surprise me.”
Western Kentucky Christmas Toy Drive
First Lady Britainy Beshear joined the call to provide superintendents with details on a toy drive for children in Western Kentucky. The drive began Tuesday, Dec. 14, and runs through Saturday, Dec. 18.
“These tornadoes would have marked one of the most awful days in our state’s history, no matter when they hit,” Beshear said. “But it’s even more painful and tragic that it has happened just a few weeks before Christmas. Especially this time of year, we all look forward to being home for the holidays spending time with those who mean the most to us. Now, many of our families don’t have a home to go to or a family to spend Christmas with.”
Toys, books, electronic gift cards and $25 VISA or MasterCard gift cards are eligible to be donated for children ranging from infants to teens. For more information on the drive and how to donate, visit the Western Kentucky Toy Drive webpage.
“With Christmas just around the corner, we want to help Western Kentucky parents and guardians make the holidays special for their kids,” Beshear said. “That’s why I launched the Western Kentucky Christmas Toy Drive, so people across the Commonwealth can come together to make Christmas special for as many of our kids and teens as possible in Western Kentucky who really need our love and support and a little bit of Santa.”
Gov. Andy Beshear also has established the Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund to assist those impacted by the tornadoes and the severe weather system. All donations to the Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund are tax-deductible and donors will receive a receipt for tax purposes after donating.
“This fund is going to help cover funeral expenses for those we tragically lost in the storm,” First Lady Beshear said. “I’m proud to announce, as of today, we have raised over $9 million. We’re going to take care of our families that need us right now.”
KDE Support Plan
Joined by KDE Associate Commissioner Robin Kinney, Commissioner of Education Jason E. Glass delivered updates to the state’s superintendents on the department’s plan to support affected communities.
“Normally this time of year we’d be thinking about how we might unwind a little bit over the next few weeks and spend some time together with our family and friends,” Glass said. “Of course, with the events that happened this weekend, we all have different priorities and things that we’re thinking about.”
Operations and Logistics
Beginning with the ongoing operations and logistics of these districts, Kinney stressed the importance of continuing to take care of staff, students and families.
“We’ve heard from our superintendents that they are in the business of the human and the heart right now,” Kinney said. “That’s where you need to be.”
From a funding standpoint, Support Education Excellence in Kentucky (SEEK) dollars will not be affected.
The SEEK funding program is a formula-driven allocation of state-provided funds to local school districts that covers, as part of the allocation, funding for transportation costs, low-income students and special needs students as reported by districts.
During a special session earlier this year, the Kentucky General Assembly passed Senate Bill 1, which allows districts to use previous attendance data from either the 2018-2019 or the 2019-2020 school years to calculate the average daily attendance that will be used in calculating SEEK funds and any other state funding based in whole or in part on average daily attendance for the district for the 2021-2022 school year.
Kinney said the department has received questions about emergency days, and after sharing the regulation that provides details on how a district would submit an emergency day waiver, said districts should not concern themselves with that right now.
“That’s not where you need to be focusing your time and attention,” Kinney said. ‘We are not expecting to receive emergency day requests from districts.”
When it is time for districts to make those requests, Kinney said local boards of education may submit those to the commissioner of education for approval.
School and Community Nutrition
School and community nutrition (SCN) sponsors that have been directly impacted by the severe weather event may provide meal service as an open site in a congregate or non-congregate setting with approved waivers. Kinney advised sponsors to contact KDE’s Division of School and Community Nutrition (SCN) for immediate approval.
If a sponsor’s school is closed and operating as a shelter, sponsors can provide meals to anyone in the shelter, Kinney said. Sponsors should contact KDE’s SCN division immediately to discuss program options and other food considerations.
At this time, program operations are not permissible once a district’s scheduled winter break begins. However, Kinney said KDE is seeking guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on how impacted communities can continue operation throughout winter break.
Child nutrition sponsors not directly impacted by the storms can donate program food to other program sponsors for program use, Kinney said.
Donating sponsors should record the inventory and document it as a donation. Receiving sponsors should record the inventory as a donation. The inventory then becomes the property of the receiving sponsor.
“It’s probably best that you reach out to those districts first [before donating] because they are being flooded with all kinds of things,” Kinney said.
For districts that faced building damage as a result of the storms, Kinney outlined the capital construction process, including emergency procedures, provided in 702 KAR 4:160.
Districts also should contact maintenance personnel to stabilize and waterproof the facility, Kinney said. The situation may require that community volunteers be sought and local contractors hired with the equipment to address the situation. In this scenario, districts are advised to keep records of all volunteer’s hours, equipment rented, materials purchased and payments to contractors, as these may be able to be reimbursed later.
KDE would like to offer ongoing support to districts as the recovery process begins. Districts are encouraged to reach out to the department’s disaster recovery email address with any issues related to the storm or any damage resulting from it, Kinney said.
“If you have questions, issues, you need some help in a particular area and we can help you. … we encourage you to use the disaster recovery mailbox,” Kinney said.
KDE will meet with leaders of the affected districts at 1 p.m. ET this Thursday, Dec. 16, during a Special Superintendents Webcast to gauge how the agency can best provide support during this time.
“We will stand by these districts as they try to meet the needs of their students and families and return to school in January,” Glass said.