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In Katrina's Wake
Mississippi's coastal community colleges struggle to rebound from disaster

By Kathy Witkowsky
Perkinston, Mississippi

On an unseasonably cool Thursday evening in late September, hundreds of spectators seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief as they crowded into the stadium at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College's Perkinston campus to watch the school's first football game of the season. The match-up, between the Gulf Coast Bulldogs and one of their biggest rivals, the Wildcats of Jones County Junior College, was to have been the season's fourth contest. But the three previous games had to be cancelled or rescheduled in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which left thousands either homeless or jobless or both.

The worst natural disaster in the nation's history also caused tens of millions of dollars worth of damage to the state's south Mississippi community colleges, including between $15 million and $20 million at Gulf Coast; between $3 million and $5 million at Jones County Junior College; and a whopping $50 million worth at nearby Pearl River Community College. Together, the three schools enroll more than 16,000 students at ten different sites throughout south Mississippi.

But aside from the press box, which was destroyed, and the women's restrooms, which suffered broken windows and flooding, Gulf Coast's stadium survived intact. And that was a blessing for fans like 18-year-old Gulf Coast freshman Jessica Weaver. Football is a way of life in the south, and for many people in the stands, the game provided a welcome respite from the grief and frustration that had defined their lives for the past several weeks.

 
Weary faculty and staff members attend a meeting at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College one week after Hurricane Katrina.
(Photo by Jackson Hill, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
"It makes things feel a lot more normal," said the slight brunette, whose home in Gulfport was so badly flooded that her family had packed up and relocated 35 miles inland. She was displaying her school spirit with a blue hair ribbon on which she had painted "Go Dawgs" in yellow paint. Blue and gold are the school colors.

Neither the Bulldogs—who won the game 44 to 7—nor the dazzling half-time show, which featured skilled performances from both schools' marching bands, dance teams and flag-waving color guards, disappointed Weaver.

But it will take more than a few well-executed plays on the gridiron and a show of school spirit for the community colleges in south Mississippi and the people they serve to rebound. School officials say it's too early to predict the full financial and emotional toll of Katrina. Much, they say, depends on how quickly the coastal casinos and communities rebuild.

At the urging of Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, lawmakers have already set that reconstruction in motion. Meeting in a special post-Katrina legislative session, they approved a bill that will allow coastal casinos to build on land, as long as they remain within 800 feet of the water. Previously, the law only allowed floating casinos. The governor also has appointed a commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal to ensure that the coast rebuilds "bigger and better than ever."

"We're going to have the greatest renaissance that Mississippi's ever seen, but that's going to be a time off," said Wayne Stonecypher, executive director of the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges. Stonecypher and other community college leaders believe that their schools are poised to benefit from the state's anticipated post-Katrina boom, both in terms of funding and enrollment. But that boom may not begin to kick in for another six to nine months, and it may take as many as three to five years for the region to fully recover. "The trick," Stonecypher said, "is surviving that."

The Mississippi community colleges near the Gulf coast played a key role during and immediately after the August 29 storm by sheltering and feeding emergency personnel and recovery workers, and by serving as a gathering place and provider of hot meals for neighbors and staff who had no means of communication and no electricity, in some cases for weeks. (Some rural residents are not expected to have landline phone service until November.) Now school leaders say that the community colleges can—and should—continue to contribute to the region's recovery.

"The darkest of challenges are opportunities," said Willis Lott, president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. "This is an opportunity for us to be a part not only of the reconstruction, but also a part of the new coast—because it will be a new coast."

 
Pine trees snapped in the yard of Ronald Whitehead, president of Jones County Junior College, where Hurricane Katrina caused several million dollars in damage.
(Photo by Jackson Hill, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Despite extensive damage to their facilities, even the most heavily affected schools—Gulf Coast, Jones County Junior College, and Pearl River Community College—managed to reopen within three weeks of the hurricane. (The exception was Pearl River's leased center in Waveland, which was destroyed; classes didn't resume there until the first week of October, when they began operating out of three trailers the school set up at a nearby airport.)

In part that was because dozens of staff, including high-level administrators, pitched in to help with the clean-up, manning everything from chainsaws to backhoes.

Now those same administrators are grappling with an array of financial uncertainties. Most immediately, they are trying to determine if insurance and the federal government will pay the full cost of rebuilding and repairing their campuses, and if not, where they will find the money to pay for it.

And those are only the beginning of the financial hurdles that administrators face. Even after the blue roof tarps and scaffolding are gone, it seems likely that Katrina will adversely impact their three main sources of revenue: tuition, state appropriations and county mill levies.

In the wake of Katrina, thousands of students who had enrolled for the fall semester at one of the three south Mississippi community colleges have dropped out. Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, whose four-county district includes hard-hit Gulfport and Biloxi, saw the largest decrease: more than 2,700 of its students—some 26 percent of total enrollment—hadn't returned to classes by the end of September.

 
President Willis Lott said Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College has postponed several planned construction projects and will spend $10 million in reserves to get through the next few months.
(Photo by Rich Kopp for CrossTalk)
 
No one is sure exactly what has happened to these students, nor whether they will return, said Cheryl Thompson-Stacy, vice president for academic and student affairs at MGCCC. Based on requests for transcripts, it doesn't appear that many have re-enrolled at other institutions. Some may simply have been overwhelmed dealing with post-Katrina financial, housing, transportation and child-care issues. Others, she suggested, might have chosen to take advantage of the incipient boom in construction-related jobs, which tend to pay well.

Katrina's damage wasn't limited to coastal counties. At Jones County Junior College, which is 70 miles inland, the storm generated sustained winds of 110 miles per hour, and trashed much of the school's eight-county district. More than 740 students have withdrawn since the beginning of the semester-about double what the school would see in a normal year.

Equally troubling, said Jesse Smith, dean of the college, is that students continue to drop out at a much higher rate than in the past. He attributed that in large part to the high price of gasoline, which is now selling for nearly three dollars per gallon in the area, and which might be deterring financially strapped commuter students, some of whom live 50 miles away from campus. Students may also be withdrawing because of financial or emotional difficulties at home as a result of Katrina. And a few, he said, "are just wigging out" from the trauma of the storm.

Regardless of the reasons, those enrollment decreases are costing the institutions. Many of those students received 100 percent refunds for the fall semester. In addition, state appropriations are dispersed on a per-pupil basis—and that amount has been steadily cut over the past five years.

Indeed, Katrina hit at an inopportune moment for the state's community and junior colleges, which enroll 70 percent of all college freshmen in Mississippi and which have already weathered some tough times. Between fall 2000 and fall 2004, statewide enrollment increased more than 26 percent, to 67,645. During roughly the same time period, state appropriations for the two-year colleges decreased more than 17 percent while legislators fulfilled a five-year commitment to increase pay for K-12 teachers. To make up their shortfall, the community and junior colleges were forced to raise tuition, which has increased an average 66.5 percent since 1999, to $846 per semester.

The abysmal funding situation was expected to turn around during the upcoming 2006 legislative session. Based on conversations with key lawmakers and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, "This was supposed to be our year," said Stonecypher. "But it may not turn out that way."

Katrina wiped out thousands of businesses, among them the Gulf coast casinos, which employed 14,000 people and were expected to generate $84 million in gaming taxes this year, and millions more from associated tourism. The specter of that lost revenue has created a lot of pessimism about the state's near-term economic health, which in turn has caused grave concerns among the state's community college officials.

"We're already on a barebones budget," said Ronald Whitehead, president of Jones County Junior College, which serves one of the poorest districts in the state. About 70 percent of JCJC's 4,500 students receive federal Pell grants to pay their tuition, which has more than doubled in the past five years, and Whitehead said he would be reluctant to raise it again.

But at the same time, he was unsure how the school would cope if it suffered a mid-year cut in funding, which he foresaw as a "real possibility." Already, Whitehead said, the college has lost 25 to 30 faculty members—more than ten percent—because of previous funding cutbacks. Still, he was trying to remain philosophical. "You can't print dollars," Whitehead said. "You reach the point where you do the very best that you can with what you have."

At best, Mississippi's immediate financial picture is murky. If the gaming industry rebuilds quickly, and the expected Gulf Coast construction boom kicks in soon, the state may still achieve its forecasted revenue, said Darrin Webb, senior economist for the state of Mississippi. Webb also pointed out that not all coastal gaming revenue will be lost in the intervening months, because some of that business will simply shift to casinos in other parts of the state.

"There's a lot of sad stories in Hurricane Katrina, but I don't think that the revenue picture is going to be one of them," Webb said.

Wayne Stonecypher doesn't dispute that the state is primed for an economic boom. But he is not convinced that it will kick in before late March and early April, when lawmakers will be writing next year's budget. He said he thought community colleges have a 50 percent shot at a good year in terms of state appropriations. "It's the other 50 percent that causes me to worry," he said.

Adding to his anxiety is the possibility that the colleges' workforce development funds may be in jeopardy. The legislature has approved a bill earmarking a percentage of the taxes paid into the state's Unemployment Security Trust Fund for that purpose—as long as the fund remains greater than $500 million. The new bill was expected to generate about $20 million annually for workforce development. But a flood of post-Katrina unemployment could force the trust fund below the $500 million threshold.

 
"We often refer to the college as the Mississippi Gulf Coast family," says Colleen Hartfield (center), vice president for institutional relations, shown with Allison Matthews (left) and Keith Lee (right), as they worked in makeshift surroundings after the hurricane.
(Photo by Jackson Hill, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
It's a classic case of Catch-22, Stonecypher said. "There's going to be the biggest boom that Mississippi's ever seen for the next three to five years, yet at the same time we will not have the resources to train the folks who need the skills to get the construction jobs that are going to be out there."

And until that construction kicks in, devastated south Mississippi counties may suffer such a shortage of revenue that they will not be able to meet their obligations to the community colleges.

Given all the uncertainties, education leaders in the state legislature said Stonecypher's anxiety was understandable. "I think we're going to get them through it," said State Representative Herb Frierson of Pearl River County, chair of the subcommittee on community college appropriations. "I don't know how pretty it will be. There's a lot of water that has to go under the bridge before the budget is written."

Frierson's interest is more than academic: He and his grandfather both attended Pearl River Community College (and his grandfather attended it in its original incarnation as an agricultural high school); now his daughter is a freshman there.

Those kinds of family loyalties are not unusual. Mississippi's community college system has a long history, dating back to the 1920s. Its leaders and board members are both politically astute and well-connected, and the institutions enjoy a lot of support throughout the state, Frierson said. So he thinks that the legislature will do what it can for the schools, given the financial realities come spring.

State Senator Mike Chaney, Frierson's counterpart in the state Senate, and chair of the senate education committee, agrees. "We're going to try to keep them whole," he said.

The State Board for Community and Junior Colleges is exploring ways for lawmakers to do that. The board might recommend that the legislature revise the funding formula so that next year's monies are not divvied up based on this year's enrollment, said Stonecypher, the board's executive director. One alternative would limit decreases (or increases) in funding to ten percent more than the previous year, no matter what the enrollment figures; a second plan would average enrollment over a three-year period.

Stonecypher also wants the legislature to revisit a law prohibiting community colleges from offering gaming-related training. "There's a lot of good jobs there," he said. "Why do we deny Mississippians the opportunity to have them?"

 
Albert Fairconnetue (left) and Jonathan Hall, both freshmen at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, lost their homes and belongings to Katrina.
(Photo by Rich Kopp for CrossTalk)
 
Meanwhile, the colleges are trying to be prudent. Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College has put on hold plans for nearly a dozen major construction and renovation projects, including two new dormitories at its Perkinston campus. The school also has decided not to proceed with a $10 million capital campaign that it was planning to launch next summer.

One thing the school won't do, pledged MGCCC President Willis Lott, is implement layoffs. He said the school would likely use some of the $10 million it has in reserves to get through the tough months ahead.

Pearl River Community College also has delayed several planned construction projects, including a performing arts center and an athletic field house, said PRCC President William Lewis.

The schools are taking steps to recoup their enrollment losses. MGCCC has more than tripled its offerings of accelerated short-term classes—to more than 100—that begin at the end of October. Those classes meet twice as many hours so that students can still earn a full semester's worth of credits. And in an attempt to reduce the amount of money students have to spend on gas, the school also has increased the percentage of those courses that will be taught online, either in part or in full.

Pearl River Community College, which has lost about 400 students since the semester began, also is offering online accelerated courses, a first for the school. And next semester, with an eye toward the cost of gas, it plans to increase the number of classes that meet twice rather than three times a week.

"We want students to stay on track towards their degree and resume normalcy as soon as possible," said John Grant, PRCC vice president for instruction.

But as the fall semester progresses, school administrators said they are discovering that normalcy is an elusive goal, and that they need to provide more than academics to help students and staff cope with the enormity of their losses and the stress that they're now under.

At Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College alone, 200 employees—about one quarter of the staff—were displaced by Katrina, and 50 of them lost everything. So did many students.

"All I have is what I left up here at school," said a dejected-looking Jonathan Hall, 18, an MGCCC freshman from Pass Christian, Mississippi, a coastal community that was wiped out by the hurricane's huge storm surge. Hall's roommate, 19-year-old Albert Fairconnetue, also of Pass Christian, said he was in the same situation. "My house is under water, gone, in the neighbor's yard," he said. Both students were thrilled to return to school, where they have food, hot water and a routine.

But that routine hasn't left people much time to process Katrina's enormous and ongoing impact. Those who lost everything haven't had a chance to mourn their losses, while many of those who did not are suffering survivor's guilt. "You find yourself qualifying your statements all the time," said Cheryl Thompson-Stacy, whose house was undamaged but who didn't have power for three weeks. "Since you did not lose everything, how can you possibly complain?"

The long lines and bumper-to-bumper traffic don't help matters, she added. "Anything you try to do—whether it's go to the bank or the grocery store—is frustrating and irritating."

A part-time counselor who was hired by MGCCC has been booked solid, and the school plans to offer support groups for both students and staff, Thompson-Stacy said.

Counselors working for Pearl River Community College and Jones County Junior College have also been busy, officials said.

"I think a lot of our students have held a lot of this in," said Adam Breerwood, dean of student services at PRCC's main campus in Poplarville. Many students there come from the devastated coast.

Adding to their stress, about 100 students whose dorm rooms were damaged have had to double up with other dorm residents, making already tight quarters even tighter.

To try to defuse the tension, and to encourage the students to get out of their dorm rooms and socialize, the school is increasing the amount of intramural sports and evening activities it offers. "We think if they have something to do, if they can find some friends, they'll feel comfortable here," said Breerwood. "We know that their life out of Pearl River is just turned upside down right now-it's just a disaster. So we're trying to give them some joy."

But administrators also believe there is more emotional fallout to come. "When the holidays set in and they don't have a home to go to, or their family is spread out all over different locations, I'm expecting it to happen," said Breerwood.

Still, there are bright spots. Students like Jonathan Hall said he had learned valuable lessons. "I was a materialistic person," Hall said. "Material things were important to me. But what's important to me now is my family."

And for a lot of people, that sense of family extends beyond their biological relations.

"We often refer to the college as the Mississippi Gulf Coast family," said Colleen Hartfield, vice president for institutional relations at MGCCC. "And since the hurricane, that sense of family has been strengthened." Not only have students and staff from within the college rallied to help each other, she said, but more than 100 community colleges from across the state and the nation have contacted the school to offer assistance.

In the weeks after Katrina, a team of students and administrators from Pensacola Junior College in Florida, including the college president, provided hot dogs and hamburgers at MGCCC's Jackson County campus, and delivered a $2,100 check for the school's foundation. A few days later, a crew of administrators from Hinds Community College in central Mississippi barbecued chicken for employees and students at MGCCC's heavily damaged Jefferson Davis campus. Copiah-Lincoln Community College in southwest Mississippi sent a team to help in the financial aid office, while Gulf Coast Community College of Panama City, Florida, sent a $15,000 check. Students at Illinois Central College are selling plastic wristbands and donating all proceeds to MGCCC. And each of the 22 Arkansas community colleges is "adopting" an MGCCC employee who has been heavily impacted by Katrina.

"There really is a great sense of unity among the community colleges across the nation," Hartfield said. "And I think a catastrophe of this sort demonstrates that very well."


Kathy Witkowsky is a freelance reporter in Missoula, Montana, and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio.

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