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Texas Schools Feeling Effects of Drought, Fires

The drought and extreme heat are taking their toll on school districts across Texas. Costly problems include cracks in building foundations, increased maintenance costs and loss of vegetation.

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Bastrop's school district is still figuring out how to cope with the nearly 1,400 students and teachers who either lost their homes or have been displaced by the recent wildfires that consumed more than 34,000 acres in the county.

While other districts have not struggled with similar devastation, the drought and extreme heat are taking a toll in other ways, causing cracks in building foundations, higher maintenance costs and loss of vegetation.

The drought across Texas has lasted nearly 12 months, and it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. In fact, La Niña, the intermittent Pacific Ocean phenomenon that caused the drought, is back and strengthening. According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, 88 percent of the state is considered to be in the worst drought stage.

School districts are dealing with the extreme weather by changing school procedures — and some have already had to take costly preventative measures or make expensive repairs. All of this happens as schools have already pared down their budgets, shed staff and streamlined operations to absorb the $4 billion in budget cuts enacted by lawmakers during this year's legislative session.

Recently, a grass fire came within two miles of Northside Independent School District’s Langley Elementary School in San Antonio. Pascual Gonzalez, a spokesman for the school district, said Northside ISD has undertaken a major review of its crisis plan as a result of the fires.

“The most important issue for us is, how do we get kids out of schools that are immediately threatened?” Gonzalez said.

Because the district is made up of 112 schools located in both urban and rural areas, Gonzalez said it’s critical that Northside ISD’s main office is always in contact with police officers and firefighters and has a plan for getting buses to students if roads are closed.

Houston ISD hasn’t been immune to the extreme weather either. Over the past couple months, the district’s Construction and Facility Services has received more than a dozen requests to evaluate school buildings for structural concerns, according to HISD spokesman Patrick Trahan. Some of the recommended repairs have been simple, such as cutting down nearby trees that absorb large amounts of moisture from the soil in order to reduce the chance of foundation movement.

“Others have been much more extreme,” Trahan said. “Some of the major foundation repairs cost up to $600,000.”

Jeff Clemmons, the director of the Texas Association of School Boards' OnSite Services, which provides districts with assistance on a variety of environmental, facilities and energy issues, said there has been concern around the state about how schools can cope with the weather without devastating their budgets.

“The million dollar question is how do we cut costs?” Clemmons said. “There has to be a cool enough temperature in the classroom to maintain a good learning environment, but of course, that becomes more difficult when it gets hotter outside.” 

In Central Texas, Llano ISD has been putting up a costly fight to save its football fields. Llano recently banned outdoor irrigation using city water, so the district installed a pump and pressure tank on a nearby well. The district also bought a water cannon that irrigates the fields in a 360-degree circle, using less water at any given moment than a sprinkler head. Llano ISD Superintendent Dennis Hill said these two projects cost about $15,000.

“We’ve spent a lot of money to get access to water, but no one knows exactly how much water is under that well,” Hill said. “Today we have water and tomorrow, maybe we won’t. It’s kind of a waiting game. We are holding our breath.” 

An earlier version of this story quoted Pascual Gonzalez talking about how the grass fires had affected his district. His comments were hypothetical, and didn't reflect the district's reality.

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