Kentucky School Advocate
By Jennifer Wohlleb
Walking into the central office of Lincoln County Schools on a recent January morning, visitors are greeted with clean, freshly scented air, and a staff happy to be back under the same roof. It’s a far cry from just a few months ago when a fire destroyed part of the building and left the parts still standing a smoke-damaged mess.
The Aug. 6 fire not only damaged the district’s central office, but it also destroyed an annex that housed its early childhood programs, school health center, storage area, classrooms for Stanford Elementary’s preschool and the district technology hub, among other things.
There is still much work to be done, including finishing setting up temporary classrooms for the Head Start and preschool students, but in the months since the fire, district officials have learned some valuable lessons.
“Recovery happens in phases,” said Superintendent Karen Hatter.
She credited a number of people, including staff and community members, for jumping in right away to make sure students districtwide missed only four days of classes – which had been set to start the day after the fire.
“On the day after the fire, Aug. 7, we had an emergency board meeting at the high school. That morning, we had brainstormed everything that we needed to do immediately to be able get school going,” Hatter said.
Getting up and running meant identifying what needed to be done.
“Internally, we divided into teams and conquered the big tasks,” Hatter said. “I think we broke down into 13 or 14 teams working on things like, ‘We’ve got to have space or we won’t be able to get back to work.’ And the technology, and what are we going to do about the preschool, and how are we going to handle the mail? We brainstormed everything we could think of and by that night, within 12 hours of the fire, we had a plan for our immediate recovery, so we could get up and going as quickly as possible.”
She said the community came through for the district in many ways.
“Community is how you survive in the aftermath of tragedy,” she said. “They didn’t say, ‘What do you need,’ they just came with help. So we are just very grateful for that. And even internally, from the ranks of our employees, our schools, the support was overwhelming. The way we approached recovery was working in teams, breaking down big tasks, because it was huge.”
Hatter said technology staff from other districts and the Kentucky Department of Education were instrumental in getting the district back online, and getting the students back in class.
“The big impact was on technology being down; we couldn’t take attendance or run the food service,” she said. “Everything is dependent on technology anymore.”
There was no space large enough to accommodate all the central office needs, so the staff split up into several locations, including office space in downtown Stanford donated by the community.
“We couldn’t move our payroll and business off campus because of MUNIS,” which needs to be connected to the Kentucky Educational Technology System, Hatter said. “One of our schools gave us a classroom and made an adjustment for us. So our business office ran out of Stanford Elementary because of MUNIS. When we were downtown, we were not on the KETS network, technically. So it was much slower Internet, which made us appreciate that so much more.”
She said the loss of space has brought staff closer – physically and emotionally.
“We’re more tightly knit together here in this office because we had to put more people in fewer offices than we did before,” she said. “And storage is an issue right now. Our insurance has let us lease a building that we are using for storage, because we’re ordering all of our lost materials and we didn’t even have a shipping and receiving place anymore.”
The biggest space issue has been the lack of classrooms for the Early Head Start program. District officials initially believed the portable units would be online by October, but as of January they were still in the process of being set up.
Jim Kelley, former chairman of the Lincoln County Board of Education who retired at the end of the year, said that was one of the harshest lessons learned.
“We thought we could get this thing up and running with the portable units a whole lot quicker than we did,” he said. “But we found out even with the cooperation of the insurance, the logistics of the thing, getting everything moved in, getting your water and electric hooked up, getting the units to be suitable to the preschool regulations, etc., that was the worst thing.”
He urged any school district dealing with a similar situation in the future to move quickly to find an alternate location.
“It just takes time to get things done,” Kelley said. “At first you think you’re going to get it done pretty quickly, but it does just take time. So if you’ve got classrooms that have been dislocated, then I would move as quickly as possible to find an alternate site for those classrooms.”
Hatter said there were regulations the staff hadn’t anticipated, especially for Head Start and preschool classrooms, which all must have restrooms.
“There was extensive plumbing that had to happen, and getting state approval – not that the state delayed, it was just part of the process we hadn’t really counted on,” she said.
Plan for problems
Hatter said having recovery plans in place is important, but so is understanding that not everything will go as planned.
“You have to have a plan, but you have to know there are going to be glitches in the plan and you have to be flexible,” Hatter said. She cited the snag with the temporary units as an example.
“Even when you’re planning and you have a timeline you’re trying to meet, you have to think, ‘What if this timeline doesn’t work?’” she said. “You don’t have to have it all planned out in detail, but do you have the flexibility to be able to handle things if it doesn’t happen?”
Drill, baby, drill
Hatter urged school personnel to not only continue doing safety drills, but to take them to heart.
“Drills are so important to keeping safety in mind at all times because you don’t know when something is really going to happen,” she said. “I think because we had practiced, and because we were prepared … everyone went out and accounted for the groups they were with; no one was left behind in the building. I would not have been able to know who was here at lunch (when the fire started) and who was gone, but people were able to account for each other in their work groups.”
She said it is easy to take such drills for granted.
“When I first heard that alarm, I thought, ‘Well, I didn’t know we were having a drill that day, usually they announce that it’s a drill,’ but that didn’t come,” Hatter said. “You had to overcome that thought that this was just a drill, so you need to always practice your drills. We’re just so thankful that no one was hurt.”
She also urged anyone in a similar situation to get expert help and advice.
“If it’s facilities issues, you’ve got to use your state education department people to guide you and make sure you don’t miss any steps, because you are in an emergency mode of operation and you want to make sure you cover everything that’s required under law,” she said. “So KDE is a great resource, your board attorney, your insurance agent, adjusters, it just depends on what the problem is. But consult with experts as you make your decisions and look for solutions.”
And thanks to a tornado three years ago, Hatter said the district’s insurance policies were in good shape.
“After that, I had really looked at our policies for deductibles, the whole amount, so we had really upped our coverage a little bit, so we’re really glad that we did,” she said. “We have good insurance.”