Rock McNulty: My name is Rock McNulty and I’m the superintendent of Smithville ISD. I was sitting in Kyle Field enjoying a game where Texas A&M was playing SMU. In that same stadium was the high school principal, the athletic director and it was an unusual weekend because the game was played on Sunday. Suddenly we were – and the assistant superintendent was also at that game and suddenly we began all receiving different text messages and phone calls regarding the wildfire or a wildfire or a fire that had gotten out of control. So, we all began leaving the game at different times before the ending of the game and it was dark when most of us were returning back home.
We were coming home via 21 from Caldwell to Page and as you were approaching Page, there was this apocalyptic glow that took place across the hills and it was pretty amazing. I think then that you realize the seriousness of the fire. We already had gotten word that 21 was cut off and that 71 was cut off so as you turned to Page and I forget what that farm road is that heads south to Smithville, but from Page to Smithville, you could see this glow off to the left over the hills and you could see where the highway had been cut off. So, as the evening, late in the evening progressed, you’re watching the news and trying to keep up with the fires and that’s when we all came to work on Monday, which was a school holiday. We began actually rallying the troops, deciding on what do we need to do.
The highways were cut off. What’s the progress on the fire and it was hard to get information because at that particular time, telephone lines were beginning to go down or act erratically, cell phone towers were getting cut off and people were getting redirected so you couldn’t stay online very long. Then, television, I mean the reports were not always accurate or they have been accurate for Bastrop and the larger area, but for the east side of the county, I don’t know – they were just not clear. So, we decided we needed to call school and not have school on Tuesday obviously because we could not run, I think it was five bus routes, because our buses go on Highway 71; I mean, we go all the way to nearly to Bastrop.
So, we took it day by day, minute by minute and here at work they started, they, being the Red Cross and the city started asking for resources such as volunteers, buses and food and we, our food service director, went down to the Red Cross Relief Center and asked where she could help because we had ordered food for our kids and so we began volunteering our food resources and our kitchen resources and then they asked if we would open up a gym and provide childcare for small children and showers, washing facilities because the Rec Center which was sent up as the relief center was just not large enough to take care of all of the hygiene needs that came up.
I got a call from the Commissioner of Education and what was interesting was is that, in that call, it wasn’t that I was screening calls, it was that I would get my message well after, I never would hear the phone ring, to get a reception we had to stand in the front of the school yard because the weak power that we received, or the weak signal. Eventually, we had to drive down to the airport because they had wifi and it was working. We used that as a resource, as well. We started receiving phone calls because we thought, the officials thought that the town needed to be evacuated or might possibly have to be evacuated. We called our bus drivers that were not affected and we stationed buses, school buses at the hospital, at the nursing home, at the Red Cross Relief Center and we tried to be inconspicuous about it because we didn’t want to cause a panic.
KUT News: And when was this?
McNulty: Was probably Wednesday and I was standing in the school yard and you couldn’t see 200 yards because of the smoke. Of course, we cancelled school and then we’re also cancelling football games and all those other school activities that are going on so I’m calling Wimberley who we were supposed to play in football. You can’t practice. People don’t realize it’s not just the fire that cuts off or contains people, but it’s the air quality. We couldn’t – kids have asthma. You can’t really practice outside or go to recess. We probably – we estimated we had close to 250-300 students and staff that were not even able to get to school because where the fire was cut our school district in half so we couldn’t get buses nor could we expect people to get – you’d have to go way around. You’ve had to go to Elgin and up 290 and come back around.
Well, by then, you’re halfway through the school day. It’s a two hour drive all the way around so we were really just cut off from – based on the fire line. So, we just called school for the rest of the week and the Commissioner of Education was very understanding. We’re a small school district and the Commissioner of Education is responsible for over 1,040 school districts so it is not common for me to get a call from the Commissioner of Education nor from the Lieutenant Governor so it’s a little surprising – we have a state emergency number system and you wonder if that’ll ever work of if anybody will ever give you a call. I can vouch it does work because they called on my personal cell phone. It’s a system that I think it means a lot to a person because all of these things are going through your head okay, now how can I help and what do I do, what do I have authority to release resources because I do answer to a School Board and to a community, not just the Commissioner and everyone else up the chain of command.
It gave me a great deal of confidence to know that number one, people had confidence in my leadership, there was someone to call of greater authority to bounce ideas off of or to let people know what we’re doing and why we’re not having school and helping us get the word out that we’re not having school. We have an automated alert system, but when computers are down or when cell phones are down, even some landlines were down and you’re not living in your house, it’s hard to get word that you don’t have school that day. But we got through all of that and word travels fast in a smaller community. We have about 1,725 students’ pre-k through 12th grade that go to school here in Smithville.
KUT News: So, I just wonder like cause you talked a lot about communication. When you’re getting the word, you’re telling parents, you’re telling students there’s no school, did you get any reaction directly from – did you have any one on one with? Are there any stories you can recall when you’re talking to people telling them what, schools cancelled for the week.
McNulty: Well, and there was another good reason to cancel school beside air quality, not being able to pick kids up for transportation, but because of limited communication via the cell phone or landlines or any other means. I would get in my truck and I went to downtown and went to the city and I went to the emergency relief and the volunteers. I would say that over half of the volunteers were high school students or faculty members or staff members for the school district and so we would take over half the volunteer staff that was working, because you needed so many hands and folks actually folding clothes or categorizing and putting, because we were inundated with folks from Houston just all over sending in all of these clothes and hygiene items and soaps and towels and so you’re trying to divide – over here goes the diapers and over here goes the – to the point we literally opened up another warehouse area and, I mean, I was amazed at all the kids –
I don’t know – the school, in an indirect manner, had such an impact on the manpower to make things happen. They were volunteering in the rec center which was Red Cross Relief and they were volunteering – our Director of Maintenance and our maintenance guys, I guess it was Wednesday – you know volunteer firemen depend on their own vehicles to get to the fire for the most part. Well, if your – they try to get to the station and then they get on their firefighting equipment and then they head to the fire. Well, they have to be relieved so you’re not taking off the firefighting equipment; there had to be a quick means of transportation to move firefighters from the volunteer fire department to the fire line.
So, we used school buses and school bus drivers and our maintenance folks to drive the buses and pick up the firefighters and take them to the fire line and then we would pick up the reliefs and bring them back to the volunteer fire department where the committee members are cooking meals and having water and what was interesting is I’m so proud of my hometown. I grew up in Bay Towne, Texas. So many people responded that actually either I went to school with or I knew or knew my parents or my grandparents and the Bay Towne Fire Department sent pallets of water. The churches responded with – I had former teachers call me up actually noticed that I was the Superintendent of Schools and they sent clothes and furniture and just all sorts of relief, food, school supplies.
KUT News: I know. I heard that help came in from all over. That you were overwhelmed with support. I wonder – you were also and you were deploying, as you said, some of the school district’s resources to help out. You had high school students helping out. What other sorts of ways was the school district, like what other resources did you use to help in the effort? I mean, you opened up buildings.
McNulty: Opened up buildings. We provided our transportation for possible evacuation. We provided transportation for the firefighters to the fire line. We obviously provided manpower for the donation centers, for the volunteer fire department and for the Red Cross Relief Center.
KUT News: Wow.
McNulty: And we sent food that would otherwise spoil in our freezers or in our refrigerators and helped prepare food at the Relief Center.
KUT News: Were any of your students or faculty – were any of their homes damaged?
McNulty: Yes, we had 66 students and nine faculty members who lost their homes in the fire. We had over 125 students and faculty members who were displaced. In other words, although they didn’t lose their home in the fire, they had to live somewhere else until their home was habitable again.
KUT News: Did you talk to any of the students or faculty whose homes were destroyed?
KUT News: And can you share any of those interactions?
McNulty: You know it was interesting. They were so gracious. They recognized – there was a gratefulness in the fact that they didn’t lose a life and that although I’ve never been there, those things are temporal compared to their family and friends. So, there was a gratefulness in the fact and I also think that they were overwhelmed at how a community where you never know how far your friendship or how deep a friendship is, but where a community just kind of wrapped their arms around them and responded with such a givingness. So, I think they were a little – number one, I think you’re shocked because of the trauma, number two, I think you’re even as shocked as to the human response of people around you and how they want to give and how they want to express their love, their concern, their – just their deep down desire to help to make things better.
I think we can all relate to losing something. I don’t know that we can relate to losing something to that magnitude. To walk back and see my tree covered lot is just smoldering stumps and there’s this smoky grey. We were trying to make determinations. We knew we were going to have to start school and I don’t remember if it was Friday or Saturday after the fire, but I’m driving around with the County Commissioner along the bus routes and I’m looking out across the hills that I didn’t even realize they were there. These hills and gullies that we had and it is for miles it is covered with this white ash with these black stumps that where smoke is still coming up. I mean, people don’t realize – well, just because you contain the fire there isn’t stuff still burning because it is. So, we wanted to hear this message that the fires contained.
I really – I now know that the real desire is I want to hear that is’ out, not just controlled and contained, but it’s out and down with because it wasn’t done with. There were these just empty cars and shells of homes or just chimneys and I remember driving along the road and said well, we can’t take a bus down here because although you would have a line of three electric poles, the middle may have burned out so it’s just hanging barely – it was just too dangerous and you never knew when there was going to be something that come up and fall over the road or to be a line over the road. So, we really could not run bus, not that it would have been necessary because no one’s living there really, but we couldn’t run a bus route and thousands of acres, square miles of our school district. So, there had to be arrangements to find children so if a parent didn’t call then we tried to contact them as to because we had children that were in hotels and relief centers in LaGrange and in Gettings and in Bastrop and so we went to pick those kids up whether in a van or in a bus. We’re searching for our kids because we wanted to get them back and start ministering to them and helping – having some normalcy in their life.
KUT News: How do you know where they were?
McNulty: We would call them by cell phone and they’d said where they were staying. Now, we lost about 30 kids in that – that they just moved away. They stayed with relatives in Sealy or Katy or San Antonio or wherever or Houston and they just weren’t going to come back and I’m sorry for that, but I tell you what, a year after there is a resilience in this community to do what’s right by others and to come back stronger than ever. We were struggling in this school district because of financial reasons; not that anything was spent poorly, but because of the finance system changing for education, we scrap for what we have and we try to save where we can. We had already cut six staff members.
We’d gone through a tax election and raised our tax, I mean, we were struggling moneywise to offer – we’d cut some programs such as soccer and it was a couple of others that we kind of had to half our debate program and only participate in UIL and not participate in the forensics league. I mean, there were little cuts kind of spread everywhere. So, I mean we had already decided well we can do this, we froze the salaries, everybody from me down had decided we were going to freeze salaries and the board was supportive and we were already going through what we thought was going to be a struggle, but then you whop us with a Bastrop Complex Fire and it was truly a complex fire in more ways than just burning of acreage. People were supportive and resilient.
KUT News: So, what’s happening with the finances now? Cause I know that –
McNulty: We are doing great. The community overwhelmingly said we’re all about our schools and we have – this next year we will restore every job that had gotten cut, we have restored our full debate program. The only program we have not brought back was soccer and one other little program, but we’re getting there slowly, but surely.
KUT News: Did you lose any property from the fire, like property value?
McNulty: Yes, we probably lost about $30 million dollars in value.
KUT News: And so what would that – I don’t know if you can – will that mean for revenue.
McNulty: We’ll be losing about $350,000.00 in tax revenue. Remember, schools are funded in two parts; the number of kids you have and how good their attendance rate is and secondly, the amount of taxes you raise and then a few federal dollars here and there. About 48% comes from property taxes and about 51% comes from state revenue based on your enrollment and students attendance.
KUT News: So, how big of a blow was it to lose the $350,000.00?
McNulty: Well, that’s about five teachers, well, yeah, I believe so, about five or aides.
KUT News: But this – when was your recent tax rate election?
McNulty: It was last year. Okay, it was May before the Labor Day fires.
KUT News: Okay. So that helped you –
KUT News: But the revenue lost from the fires?
KUT News: Any help from the state at all in terms of reimbursement?
McNulty: Not that I’m aware of.
KUT News: Just curious. What did Robert Scott say when he called you? Can you say, can you tell me?
McNulty: Yeah. Sure. He said – he identified who he was and he says what can we do to help? What do I need to do to help you get through this? I said – I gave him a rundown just like I gave you earlier in the interview of what we had been doing in response to the fires, how we were having to cancel school because of air quality, transporting kids to school and teachers, remember teachers have homes here, as well, so you might can get all the kids to schools, but if you don’t have the teachers to teach them, you’re not being very effective as a school. He totally understood and he said whatever we need to do. He did bring up because this is a disaster – well, I’ll take that back.
The State did help us in the fact that he said what you’ll need to do, you and Bastrop and any other school district that’s affected, you will submit a waiver and so those four days were excused because remember we put two days in the calendar anyway for snow or ice or some other god forbid another disaster like a fire. Well, I would have use those up plus two other days so TEA approved a waiver to excuse those days because we’re responsible, depending on if you’ve written a waiver or not to go to school or have kids in school 180 days out of a school year or out of a year. Those days were excused and would not count against us in calculating state funds because that’s the number of days you’re in school are used in that formula to calculate how much funds we would receive from the state.
KUT News: Right. I wanted to ask you also quickly about how nine faculty lost homes. What do you say to a faculty member who comes back to work and their home is destroyed? Did you have to have conversations with any of those people?
McNulty: I just went around individually and just said I’m sorry and whatever we can do to help.
KUT News: What was their reaction?
McNulty: Oh, they were very gracious and, like I said, surprisingly positive about what their outcome is going to be. We distributed $28,957 in donated cash and $13,305 in gift cards to staff and students who were victimized or who were victims or had loss in the Bastrop County Complex Fires and every – a special account was opened up at the bank here in town and we zeroed out that account and we distributed. I have a wonderful just sitting here on my desk just recently I received a check from Durham Intermediate School. It’s just amazing how people responded. This was a class that had a fundraiser where they actually designed bears and sold them and sent us a check for over $1,300 and that’s what I received. I have – I’ve tried to keep and chronicle all of this stuff, but just recently this happened two weeks ago and so then we would redistribute it.
What was interesting is that some people refused the money and they said, you know, there’s people that were – we have insurance and they were affected more than we were and so why don’t you – each time we would just redistribute and redivi it out. Evenly – we were going to be fair with it, as fair with everyone as we could. Now, the gift cards are a little bit of a challenge when they come in increments of $25, $50 or $30 or $10, but we were still able to be pretty even. We kept records as to who we gave it to and –
KUT News: Was that given to faculty and staff at Smithville ISD?
McNulty: It was given to faculty and students based on – so, if we had $100.00 to give to each person, then so one family, if you had two kids, you might receive $200, but if you had three kids, you might receive $300.00 or and so that’s how we distributed it and the same with our faculty members received – if the kids got a $100.00 then we distributed a $100.00 to the faculty members, as well. Now, they are just now completing their homes so I got invited back to a housewarming of one of our elementary teachers. She was so excited.
KUT News: What happened at the housewarming?
McNulty: I didn’t get to go.
KUT News: Oh okay. Obligations of the Superintendent.
McNulty: Right. Well, I was actually out of town; I think I had to be at my mother’s.
KUT News: That’s great that this rebuilding is happening.
McNulty: It is amazing to see the number of homes that are coming back and the number of places. When we go to – every time we go to town, so to speak, to shop or to conduct business in Bastrop, we have to drive through and have a constant reminder although it’s green on the side of the road, even as you drove through on 71, you see the aftermath of the fire. I mean, there are blackened leafless pine trees on both sides of the road. I guess what’s important at this particular point is even as we approach the one year anniversary, we’re still looking to recover. We’re not totally recovered and it’ll be a while before that happens. Like I said, we are resilient.
KUT News: How do you help people sort of move on?
McNulty: That’s a good question. We provided both outside and inside the school counseling and small group settings to help people move on from the immediate effects. I’m sure that in the coming year that we’re going to have some commemorative event or small events that will allow people to remember the good part because remember in every catastrophe, there’s a multitude of hidden blessings and there’s a multitude of hidden happy events because of the response that people have with each other and the relationships that were formed and there is a sense of pride and I’m not talking about a bad type of pride, but there’s a sense of pride in individuals that can think back and say, I responded, I responded well and so did my neighbor and so did my friend, so did my church, so did my school and we did okay. We’re okay right now.
KUT News: There are those positive memories, but also when you’re talking about the commemorations and it’s right around the time the kids come back to school, there’s also the negative connotations of the one year anniversary.
McNulty: And then we’ll try to – we’ll struggle through those just as we struggled through the original catastrophe together and we’ll talk about it and we’ll try to look to the good side and try to look at that glass half full instead of half empty and support each other.