By Peter Vankevich
North Carolina Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson and a few of his top-level staff, visited Ocracoke on Wednesday (Feb. 5) to see first-hand how the island’s school was faring in the Post-Hurricane Dorian era.
“I’m very fortunate to be able to be here to see for myself and to report back to Raleigh, where Ocracoke is now that we are five months from when that storm hit,” he said. “And I have to tell you it’s so important to be able to come and visit in person, because it is amazing what the leaders have been able to do for students and teachers, but also we leave knowing how much more work is going to be necessary.”
The Hurricane which struck the island on Sept. 6 caused catastrophic damage to the village and the community of approximately 1,000 year-round residents.
Ocracoke school was so badly damaged by flooding , classes were canceled for a month while school officials scrambled to find new classrooms.
By the time classes resumed on Oct. 7, the students were divided into three village locations. Pre-K through first grade relocated to Ocracoke Child Care on Old Beach Road. The childcare center has not been in operation for a few years. Grades second through five, could use the undamaged second floor of the elementary building of the campus. The remaining grades would use the North Carolina Center for Advanced Training (NCCAT) building, adjacent to the sound ferry docks in the village.
Hyde County Superintendent of Schools, Steve Basnight, reached out to NCCAT right after it became clear that classroom space would be needed to see if it would be possible to temporarily use the facility. NCCAT Board of Trustees voted unanimously to allow Ocracoke School to use the NCCAT Ocracoke Campus building until January and a recent vote extended its use to June.
The school is not expected to be ready in September and is in the process of arranging a two-year lease for a modular system for ten connecting classrooms that should be installed and functional by this April. The temporary classrooms will be placed on the campus grounds adjacent to Back Road. What to do with the school, i.e. tear it or portions of it down and rebuild and to raise its level is the subject of many ongoing discussions, much of it subject to adequate funding.
Transported on school principal Leslie Cole’s golf cart, the two superintendents, Johnson and Basnight visited the three locations, meeting with students, teachers and Ocracoke’s Hyde County Board of Education rep. Angie Todd as well as getting a tour of the damaged campus buildings, including the school gym, library and the building hosting the industrial arts classes that got 40 inches of water.
“Hopefully we get past this budget stalemate that’s going on and that will open a lot of funding, not just for storm recovery but for our schools,” Johnson said. “It’s an unfortunate situation of an example where the political system is broken. What is good, though, is that when we have disasters like this, we, at least, get bipartisan support for relief.”
Superintendent Basnight also noted the state’s positive impact. ”Representative Hanig (R-Currituck) has been phenomenal along with the governor and the bipartisan support that we’ve seen. We’ve had people go to bat for us and things wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t done it.”
Johnson said there was another source of funding that could benefit the school. When Hurricane Florence battered eastern North Carolina, the general assembly approved 100 million dollars. Much of that money originally spent will be reimbursed to the state after federal aid and insurance monies are approved. “Some of that money is starting to come back. So, we want to get that money here to help Ocracoke.”
Principal Cole noted the many individual donations and offers of support the school has received. “People love Ocracoke, and that’s what we found out,“ she said. “We’ve been very fortunate in having the help and people coming out.”
As part of its support for Ocracoke, in late September the Department of Public Instruction announced that it was sending 200 iPads to be used by the students and teachers of Ocracoke School to help students stay on schedule with their schoolwork until they can return to their school building.
Mark Johnson, a Republican, was elected to be State Superintendent in 2016, narrowly defeating incumbent June Atkinson. He earned degrees from Emory University in political science and environmental studies. He later graduated from UNC School of Law in Chapel Hill. Prior to attending law school, he taught at West Charlotte High School, for two years through the Teach for America program. He has also served as a Forsyth County Board of Education member.
In December, he announced he would not seek reelection and will run for lieutenant governor, entering a crowded field of nine candidates for the March 3 Republican primary.
“I’m really glad we came out to see for ourselves because we know, unlike other Eastern counties, you all just are in such a unique situation that it’s just going to take more focus, Johnson said. “It’s going to be a longer haul. And so, I will be taking this back to Raleigh to see how we can get more funds.”
Richard Taylor contributed to this story