Steve Murray, superintendent of schools for Bastrop Independent school district, recently spoke with KUT News about his experience during the Central Texas wildfires of last year.
KUT News: Let me to take you back in time a little bit to September, the weekend before- what was, what was going on before any of the fires, before anything happened, you know your headed into labor day weekend, it’s the end of the week, what was that like?
Murray: Well obviously we just started school, so you know we were excited, the beginning of school is always exciting, whether it be the kids coming back or your know football- we’re in Texas- footballs, a big deal so, and so everybody’s excited about the school year and, September third was the Sunday of labor day weekend, personally I was down the road at college station, my son, was-had just graduated- was going to graduate, in the coming December, had been at A&M for three and a half years and so we were at a, at a tailgate and were going to go to the football game against SMU, I remember it vividly because it was a Sunday night and they usually don’t have college games on Sunday night and so we were there with a bunch of friends and we were going to go to the game and so I looked down, my phone went off, I looked down and, the message I saw was very short but it was, it was, it was pretty succinct, it said, fire in Bastrop… that’s all it said.
And so I’m calling trying to get some details and whatever and so we’re running across the campus at College Station getting to my car and, so, on the way back I also then heard that we had a fire on the west side of district, which was-and they said it was in the colony, well I live in the colony, so that really got my attention too so not only did it have my attention because I am superintendent in the community but they said there was fire in the back in our, in our subdivision, our development. So, we rushed back, found out that obviously, there was fire in the back our development, long story short on that, we were blessed because the guys got it out within about a 24 hour period and it didn’t take any homes in our development but obviously the fire on the east side, which has been coined since then the, the Bastrop complex fire was the one that was raging, and that really just started a, chain of events that were you know important for us to you know come together not to only as a school district but as a community and try to- it was a reactionary motive at first but really it was interesting because you react but you also kind of kick in those things that you have worked on for the last several years you know about crisis management and things of that nature.
So that’s what we did, we started mobilizing and started talking about what do we do next, you know, now, we had labor day, schools out anyway, that, that following day, that Monday, that gave us a little bit of time to regroup, to think about things, but, very quickly we figured out we weren’t going to be going back to school on that Tuesday so we got together and, with the administrative team, and made that first call, that at least cancel that first day because really, even though we knew this was a big fire, a big event, we didn’t realize some of the, specific issues with the fire you know how it was spreading, how fast it was spreading, and things of that nature so even though we made that initial call to cancel school on that Tuesday, it was pretty apparent that we were going to need to cancel school for at least the rest of that week.
KUT News: Now, can you walk me through like, your, so you’re up in College Station, first of all when you got the message from someone was it a, was it a text, was it a-
Murray: It was a text; it was a text from somebody, yeah.
KUT News: So someone you knew.
Murray: I can’t even remember who it was I just remember I saw fire in Bastrop and, and that got our attention, so we, we headed back home, now-
KUT News: Before the game?
Murray: Yes, it was before the game, yeah.
KUT News: So you missed the game.
Murray: (laughs) Missed the game, yeah, no big deal there but we missed the game but the interesting thing was as we started driving in and getting closer, even then I knew the gravity of the situation, because we were already diverted off of our normal route, and couldn’t come down 21, we had to go over to Elgin and then come out, come down 95 and come into Bastrop in a different was, so when I knew 21 was already cut off, that gave me a sense that this was a lot bigger fire than maybe I had, had you know first been told or maybe imagined because I wasn’t getting a whole lot of details at that time, I just knew we needed to get back to the community and so that was interesting , knowing that we got diverted had to go all the way to the other side of, of Bastrop to get in and so we, you know we got there- and like I said personally we made sure our home was okay, our dogs were here, we had someone taking care of our dogs anyway so we, we took care of that but then very quickly, as a superintendent and so many others in the community that are in leadership roles, you find out personally what’s going on and then you kind of, you get that taken care of and then you get into that mode of taking care of the folks that you work for and so that’s what we did here but…
KUT News: So what did that entail so you go home and you make sure that your dogs are okay of course that’s a and you know, and your home is going to be there, but, and so then you move on as you said, you transition into okay now it’s, it definitely trained for crisis management, and you’re basically working from that point on?
KUT News: So what, what is that job?
Murray: Well the interesting thing was that on Monday, the labor day we, we did bring our executive team together, our cabinet, and met them firs, we didn’t bring our principal team in initially, we just wanted to get the executive team together and, and you know, one of the folks on our cabinet, didn’t know if his home was, was – in fact he wasn’t able to get back in, so many of our people on the east side, in the very heavily populated areas weren’t able to get back in and check and see if their homes were still standing, and the winds were shifting so much, so there was a lot of conflicting reports about you know what parts of the east side had been affected, which ones had not. But so one of our own cabinet members henry Gideon, our chief operations officer was in that mode, but again he just kind of mobilized again like everybody else and said well, I can’t do anything about that right now, they won’t let me go check, but I know what I can do, I can take care of the people that I work for.
So that’s what we all did, we kind of all just got in that mode and we decided that well, and so , that we’d get together and that would be our, our focus even though we had personal issues we needed to deal with, I mean our car- even though the, the fire was, was I think controlled pretty well on the, on the west side I lived, we still had our car packed for four or five days because nobody knew because the winds were shifting so much, so, so we got together and then we said okay let’s get the principles together and that was, that was a very significant meeting that first meeting because… that was Tuesday morning, Tuesday morning, so we mobilized as an executive team and cabinet and talked about where we needed to go from here, we already had a command center set up here they, we were also coordinating with, the command center that was being set up in the, in the city of Bastrop for the county, services with our emergency management folks who we, who we already had a great relationship with so that, that was a really, a key- we’ve done several press stations this year in, at statewide conferences and what not, and we talk about that, that relationship we had that with the emergency management folk and the law enforcement folks and people in our fire department well before the fires and I think that is what made so much of this work.
Is because we already had a great relationship with them, through other, you know things that we had to do together you know just events that we had to plan for, and all that so, that Tuesday morning was a significant time because we had our greater, larger, administrative team together, all our principles, of our 14 campuses, it was very apparent that the first thing we had to do was take care of them, because you could see that their emotional needs and-need to be met first because, you can’t take care of other people unless you take care of yourself first.
KUT News: What do you mean by that?
Murray: Well I just, as I scanned the room people were handling, handling things differently. Some people were stoic but I could tell that they were very worried about what was going on not only with their schools and their school district but you know their own personal situation, just like the gentleman in my cabinet, Mr. Gideon who didn’t know if his home was standing, I had a principle who didn’t know if her house was standing, and then other people had… friends and family members who their homes might have been gone or you know destroyed, there was just a lot of personal things we had to take care of, we had to attend to them personally first so what we initially told them was here’s our initial plans, we have a command center set up right here at the, at the service center which is our administration building and we said go take care of this, we gave them a time frame and then we are going to meet again, and, and so, that was important, we had to give them time and we had to do- we had to do whatever they needed first, we had to take care of them first and so we, we attended to their needs first, and then quickly got them back together I believe it was either that next, that afternoon or that next morning and that’s, they were ready, they were ready to move forward, and do what everybody- what was needed for all their campuses, their kids, their parents and that type of thing and in the midst of this we were making decisions about you know shutting down schools.
As I said, we shut down that Tuesday which was the first regular school day after the labor day holiday but I was pretty, I was pretty sure that we were going to have to come back and shut down for the rest of the week, I didn’t, and I didn’t know beyond that week, how long we may have to shut down, as it turns out, we were blessed to be able to come back to school that next Monday but, once we took care of them, then we were able to take care of everybody else and then you know I’ve said this so many times you know in presentations and interviews that I’ve done that, people have said oh you know, you go for training for things like this, you do crisis management and I said, nothing can prepare you for this.
I don’t care how prepared you think you are but what does prepare you for something like this is you rely on the people that you rely on everyday anyway, you rely on these people to take care of our kids, we rely on them to take care of our staff members, we rely on them to take care of our community and our parents, so I just needed to rely on them to take care of us in a crisis situation and then, and they stepped up to the challenge, that’s so, and that’s what I’ve said, over and over again, is you know you can have all those technical things, you can have the best laid plans and, and things of that nature for crisis management and your response but you just gotta you rely on the people you trust and that’s the people you work with and that’s, that what really made the difference for us.
KUT News: I mean what kind of plans did you have, what had you been training for? Was it something as specific as wildfire or was it just general?
Murray: I-to be real honest with you no, there- it wasn’t anything as specific as a wildfire we generally have, we have fire drills in our schools like you probably grew having a fire drill, I grew up having fire drills. We have a, a you know obstructed fire drills, unobstructed fire drills, but those are obviously relative to an event that’s happening at a building nothing really in advance was ever talked about or thought about as far as crisis management goes of a widespread wildfire, certainly it’s something we think about now but, in hindsight it was things like tornadoes, you know regular fire events, intruders on the campus we have obviously certain alerts and calls for that and, and you know shelter in place and things of that nature, okay, so this was different, we knew our kids weren’t going to be at school so that’s a different mindset and in the midst of all this, were also, because the school district, in a place like Bastrop , the school district is the community and the community is the school district so… they’re so intertwined so, our middle school, we set up our middle school as our county shelter and it stayed that way for the majority of that week and that was critical because they needed that place where folks could be because we had things set up separately in the cafeteria, in the gymnasiums, in the hallway areas because, I, I don’t recall the number but I just recall.
I do remember hearing that- we were in the five to six thousand range of people coming through that shelter in the first few days you know needing something, they could have been there temporarily but many of them, they were there sleeping, staying and their, their pets had to be sheltered in a separate place, and that, that was a whole process in itself but that, again that’s how you do, you step up however you need to you know, and so we had that shelter in place, and then we also were able to use our, our stadium parking lot and our stadium- we have some showers out there and dressing rooms and for our, for our officials and whatnot , all these things you don’t think about necessarily, they start emerging as it, need, you needed a place for our firefighters, our first responders to kind of stage, to regroup, to debrief, to be able to clean up and things like that so we were able to have that facility for them out on highway 21 at our, at our memorial stadium, our facility out there so the school, while we were trying to take care of, internally, take care of, our kids and our parents and get the information out to them we also had to take care of the community as well.
KUT News: Now a lot of this stuff, you probably had to figure out the stuff on the fly.
KUT News: Because you had, you had some training can you help like can you create a sense for me what that was like and how you were just- and I mean you had some preparedness there’s and like you say there’s no way you could have predicted this what happened so how did, how were you able to- what was it like to kind of figure stuff out on the fly?
Murray: Well your right because we do have the crisis management mode, because you know we, we go through training and we, we’ve been through, you know, seminars and we have practice drills and things like that so there were things that we put into place because of our training, we had the command center here at service center, or the administration building, we had timelines that we put into place, we had communication with the media we had set all of those things up, those are things we were trained to do, the on the fly things you talked about those came into place because of the nature of the, of the event, because of the widespread nature of this, this fire and how fast it was moving and, and things of that nature, yes, we had to do some things on the fly but again, that’s where I go back to everybody putting their head together and saying, you know what do we need to do because as a leader, you, you like to think that you’re going to be able to think of everything and I would love to be able to tell you that I did, I thought of everything but I didn’t, I have great people working with me that help me think of all of things we needed to do?
KUT News: Like what?
Murray: Oh you know, taking care of- we started very early, we started thinking about things you would never think you have to think about, that week was payroll, so we had to, we had to talk about payroll, and we had to get our people in here, and start- because you know cause not only, obviously, the people who are that are affected by the fire they would need their finances, resources but other people, they can’t just stop living and stop paying their bills and things like that so we had to make sure we had provisions for getting those things done, here in our office , other things- we needed time for our folks here.
Again as I said we’re, we’re in that mode of taking care of everybody else but at the same time, people didn’t know if their homes were gone, they had family members whose homes were gone they needed to go help out and-because the insurance claim people, were already mobilizing in mobile tents and motor homes and things like that all over the community and so we had to give those people time to go talk to them and do things like that, so, those were the types of things that you kind of do on the fly, as you find out what the needs are, you say okay let’s do this, let’s do that within the, within the first three day we set up a relief fund the county was setting up their own relief fund we had a relief fund for the school district for our employees and our kids, and, so all those things, those are the things that you kind of do on the fly because you realize what the needs are and then you just get- put something into motion and you take care of those needs.
KUT News: So what were your days like? Long?
Murray: Yeah, you could say they were long; they were pretty long, yeah.
KUT News: How long?
Murray: Oh I don’t, I don’t know you just, you get up early and you do whatever you got to do, you know I can recall my wife and I going down to the shelter to the middle school and just wanting to help in a different way, I knew I had to do what I needed to do as a superintendent, but we went down there and made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches just to hand them to people and, and more so than giving them food, it was giving them reassurance and telling them things were going to be okay and they see the superintendent there you know because they were able to talk to me about school, and their kids and things like that so being there was important, and I was there, daily, for the first week you know, till we had to shut that shelter down, and get ready for school that following Monday , a week from the fire, but it was important to be there periodically, you know, just to be around, talk to folks, you know about their kids and school, you know they wanted- because the interesting thing about this is, Nathan, is that…
You think, well your worrying about the people who’s are affected by the fire, either their home was destroyed, they didn’t know their home was destroyed, they were displaced, whatever, well we have 93 hundred kids, you know, and about 450 were unfortunately, and tragically, you know displaced, or, or lost their homes and that leaves a vast majority of our school district, that they, their kids still need to go to school they want to know what’s next, the, they obviously felt for their neighbors and their friends but, we have to- the thing that I kept on hearing was you know Steve when, when, can we got back to some sense of normalcy or what normalcy was going to be at that point. And that, that was important. And so when we made that decision to go back to school that next Monday, we got a lot of feedback from people on both sides of the equation,- from people who needed to get their kids back in school because that would give them a place of security and a place to feel loved and whatever, because so many of our people were in hotels, they were in friends’ houses and things of that nature, and then the vast majority of our folks, who were fortunately not affected by the fire directly, they said we need to have a sense of normalcy as well, we need our kids back in school, we’ll do whatever we can, so many of our people said we need to get our kids back in school so we can continue to volunteer and help out our friends and neighbors. So that was important.
KUT News: Well I mean, I wanted to ask you about sort of what it means to shut down school. First of all a couple of characteristics about your school district, what’s the population and what’s your percentage of students that are on free and reduced lunch?
Murray: We have 93 hundred kids, at the time of the fire we had 93 hundred students, we’re a 14 campus, school district, two high schools, and two middle schools, two intermediates, and six Elementaries and then there is a couple of alternatives schools.
KUT News: About how many employees?
Murray: We have… thinking here, I gotta think. A little over 12 hundred employees, a little over 12 hundred employees, you know about 700 teachers. You know 6-7 hundred people.
KUT News: We’re talking about 10 thousand people, basically that were affected by the shut downs.
Murray: Absolutely, absolutely yeah, shut down-
KUT News: So how, I mean people here shut down schools for a week… It seems like there are a lot of stuff that people don’t really realize that that affects, like for example lunch and breakfast for –
Murray: Absolutely and I’m glad you brought that up, I’m trying to think about all of those things that we had to put in place, that’s one of those things on the fly that you don’t think about, that I forgot about a second ago, we, when we, when we got back to school, it was a whole different mindset of the week away from school because that was, rec- that was response and recovery, mode, first response and then we started thinking about recovery, and then you get back into school on that next Monday and then there’s that sense of normalcy you are trying to create but you also know you are going to have students and parts coming to the school who just need your help, you know, yes I want my child back in school but can you also help me with this or what does this mean, or what is this going to look like or the lunch and the breakfast that you talk about was important so, for that week, that first week and I believe we extended it into that second week, two weeks after the fire we, we just said you know, we’ll do free lunch and breakfast for everybody.
And we just funded that and made sure that- but to answer your question earlier, we are at, close to 70 percent, lowest yes, as far as our economically disadvantaged students, you know that was- you know the, the situation with the fire was sad in so many ways but one of the saddest things to me is some of our kids who had the least, parents and families who has the least, lost everything as so that was tough to see you know it’s tough to see anybody lose their home but so many of our, our parents and kids who lost their home didn’t a whole lot to begin with you know, lose their home, but, you know that fire was indiscriminate it took, some very nice built up neighborhoods, established neighborhoods, of very nice homes and it took neighborhoods where people had mobile homes, or anything that they called home, it was, it was very indiscriminate and the interesting thing about that fire was some of the bizarre stories that came out of that fire, that I started hearing in that first week was that somebody’s house would have been, in the first two days were spared, they found out, they finally got in or at least, had emergency management people tell them their house was spared because they stared doing a tracking.
A GPS tracking on which homes were gone and which were not and then the wind shifted, and the embers came back, and went over some of those areas that had been affected already and burnt some homes on the secondary phase, just some of the stories are just, are just heart wrenching coming out of the fire. But like I said whether it’s our folks that live in some of our you know more built up neighborhoods, more established neighborhoods, or our folks that live in our those rural areas, their homes were gone so-
KUT News: What-You talked about people who live- who didn’t have much already losing their stuff, and what, what did that look like to you when you saw it, when you saw these people?
Murray: Well you know I, most other than that, the thing that I think struck me, and, and has you know, going to stay with me most of my life is, is the outpouring of support from everybody, I saw so many people, these people that I, I you knew refer to as not having much, it didn’t make any difference because all they want to do is help and give and you know people that lost their homes were pitching in at volunteer shelters. I referred to you know some of my administrators who then finally found out at the end- towards the end of the week that their homes were gone they just, they just again were in that mode of, of helping, they, you know, they both said we, well we can’t- these are people of my administrative team, they both said that we really can’t do anything about that right now, but we can help other people and so I just- that’s kind of the spirit we saw throughout the whole county, was everybody pitching in and doing whatever needed to be done to help, you know, whether, whether they had much to begin with or not, it didn’t make any difference it was just a really, special thing to see, to see this community come together, everybody, everybody and then obviously we had an out pouring of support from outside of our community, not only in the central Texas area but across the state of Texas and across the nation.
KUT News: Do you know how many students and employees lost their homes?
Murray: You know it’s, it varied from over the weeks, since that time, we can, we can you know pretty much pin point that about 400 of our students, you know their homes were either, completely destroyed or damaged severely and were affected that way and about 90 to 100 of our staff members.
KUT News: Wow.
KUT News: So, so take me back to students are going back to school and some of them have lost their homes, some of the employees have lost their homes, how does that effect the learning environment in the school district.
Murray: You know it’s interesting, at the same time that you’ve got to take care of their needs and you’ve got to worry about that, you’ve also got to get back to the business of we do which is education. And our teachers understood that, our teachers were out, outstanding, they’re phenomenal, there were-teachers are phenomenal anyway and, I- you know I think of myself as a teacher I mean I’ve been an educator for 31 years but before I think of myself as a superintendent whatever, I’m a teacher, I’m an educator, so, but our teachers are phenomenal, and they just stepped up to another, level, of amazing everybody by the way they stepped in and took care of our kids and our parents, but you know because you had to balance that taking care of their needs emotionally, but also understanding that we’re, we’re back in school and we’ve got things to take care of we’ve got education, we’ve got our, you know our curriculum that we have to take care of and that type of thing. So they did a great balancing act of, of taking care of their emotional- you know teachers do that every, any day anyway- everyday anyway, even without a tragedy like this, they, they gaged the emotional need of our kids.
KUT News: Then what do you do?
Murray: Well you know that’s they do, they-I mean, you know, teachers aren’t teachers just because they know contents, because they love kids and so you just continue to, to do what you do best and its love kids, and you know they just needed a little bit- maybe a little bit more or they needed something different you know there’s so many stories that came out of this showing the, again, that outpouring of our folks, our teachers especially, you know doing whatever needed to be done for our kids and again, so many of those folks were in that classroom, Monday morning , welcomed those kids back and their homes were gone. And that was the amazing thing, our bus fleet, at one point, I think it’s paired down a little, but initially what we heard was I think a third of our bus fleet drivers had lost their homes.
That Monday morning, they were all in the seats of our buses ready to drive those kids back to school. And that was an interesting thing in itself as well because we had hundreds of people in local hotels, or in temporary housing with friends and neighbors in other communities and from that point when we started school back on Monday and for several months after there we were going and picking up students at different areas, areas we had never picked kids up before and we had partnership in, one- it’s another significant thing that people don’t think about this is things you don’t think about ahead of time until it happens is, before the fire, we had about 300 of our students, of our 93 hundred that were designated as homeless, there’s a homeless designation and they receive certain services and some resources… it the number jumped to about 850 after the, immediately after the fire and so that, again we had to kick in and mobilize to get those, whatever is done for those kids, under that, that designation of being homeless, that official designation.
We had kids living in Del Valley, Austin, Round rock, Elgin, San Marcos, you name it, Lockhart and under the homeless designation, our job was to, if, if- and under the homeless designation they have the right to go to their home school even if they’re displaced and so we, we worked with so many of our adjoining districts and our parents and we picked our kids up at satellite sites, they would drop them off, the, either the parents or the, the school district’s transportation bus service for that district, drop them off at a satellite site, we pick the child up, and we bring them to the home campus and that went on for several months, several months and actually throughout the whole school year, you know were about to start a new school year here in august but that homeless designation pretty much stays with the student the whole year.
Unless they tell us that they’ve secured permanent housing and then, and then that designation stops but that pretty much went on through the whole school year and many of our students were, were displaced throughout the whole school year and were coming from other areas, adjoining areas, that’s, that’s one of the many blessings that came out of this whole thing, you know we had 93 hundred students when the fire hit, give or take a couple and, at last count I believe we lost about a hundred kids, you know who their parents decided to either you know relocate or what not but that number is actually pretty low, consider the gratitude-the gravity of this fire. You know when you had 34 thousand acres burn 16 hundred homes all the numbers you’ve heard, you know for the months following the fire but for us to lease 80 to 100 kids over that period of a year was amazing.
Now we, we also picked kids up because in the normal course of things, people move to Bastrop, you know the interesting thing it was a little difficult to move to Bastrop because all of the available housing was pretty much gone. You know there wasn’t a lot of, a whole lot of available housing on the ground. But there’s a lot of building going on right now, there’s a whole lot of revitalization going on right now, that’s the exciting thing about Bastrop County and our recovery from the fire is, you know you just see a lot of growth and a lot of regrowth and revitalization going on. What have you had to change, have you had to change anything since the fire, you know in terms of training, readiness, is, or you know-
Murray: I think it’s a good question Nathan, I think, I think whether it’s a simple situation in the school business, you know I’ve been doing this for 31 years now, where you know it could be one, specific situation where there have to do with, the way we approach instruction or the way we approach operation or something like that sometimes you learn through trial and error and you say oh we’ll change that for the next year or something like that well certainly when an event like this happens it, it allows you to adjust some things. You know certainly our crisis management now includes (laughs) our awareness of certain crisis management, includes, includes a major fire event not just a, a, maybe a localized fire event like we do with our fire drills and things like that, it certainly makes you think about, some of the, funds that we put together and some of the programs you know, another, another one we put together – and I’m thinking about these as things as were talking.
KUT News: Yeah.
Murray: Not only are they a relief fund, but they set up a specific- we already have a long term disability you know situation in our district for our, our employees when need be, catastrophic, illness things of that nature, we have like a, you know a leave bank if you will but we put together a specific, fire, bank of leave so people could come specifically and give days they have so other people and this is one of those things you don’t really think about ahead of time when you start, but when you start mobilizing and thinking about all the things you have to do you realize that those folks need to have time in the weeks and months following to go an visit with their insurance adjusters or homebuilders or things of that nature, and so you know they may have enough days, they may not have enough days, or those are days maybe they were going to use for, you know, for something else. So again and another show of outpouring of support our, our staff stepped up big time and came and gave days, you know, for that need. For those people, just specific to the fire, the fire needs that they had.
KUT News: And did Texas Education Agency cut you any slack in term of…?
Murray: (laughs) Yeah.
KUT News: For example you have the, the I don’t know how it works with the propery taxes now that some of these lots have homes on them I am also curious about tax assessment because you lost a bunch of school days and anything else, I mean how did the TEA-
Murray: Well I, I – the first thing I want to do is applaud Robert Scott, the commissioner of TEA because the first thing they did was give us a waiver on the four days, now we, were able to make up instructional time on some of those days, maybe not all four but we had some half day, out for professional development that we had already planned for the year some early releases that we had already had approved on our two year calendar cycle and, we were able to re-coup some of that instructional time but we weren’t told we had to, that was just a local decisions we made but when I called Commissioner Scott and he called me back, I believe it was the second or the third day of the fires when we knew we were going to be out that whole week, again that’s that thing you start thinking about, you know even though you may think that’s not something that crosses your mind.
As superintendent I have to start thinking about, okay are we going to have to make up all four of those days, then I gotta start thinking about when are we going to make up all four of those days, that type of thing but when I asked Commissioner Scott, he, he gave, he had a couple of days to deliberate and he came back and, and told us he was going to waive those four days so those were days that you know, we, we weren’t going to have to make up necessarily with- and like I said we chose to, in, in some ways we chose to do that because we needed some instructional time for our kids, but we weren’t required to, so I have to applaud them at first, for doing that and we really appreciate their, their leadership there and, since that time I am still in communication whether it be written communication or verbally with some of our state leaders because, there is an issue that needs to be addressed and it’s kind of a precedent setting thing. You know we have a, we have a situation called whole harmless which allows us to not be hurt if we lose attendance or enrollment because of, of an event like this on the MNL or what’s called the operating side of our taxation.
But you referred to did we lose anything on the value side- and that’s where were are going to get hurt the worst and there’s really no caveat available in, in the DEA or in legislative mandate to say automatically, we’ll go step up and, and help these or aid these districts and there are other districts obviously that have had to deal with tragedies in the state of Texas, you had hurricane Rita, and Katrina and things of that nature, but nobody really, I am sure they asked as well, but nobody really stepped up and said we’re going to make up the loss in value, you know initially and it, it will have an impact, the numbers have been paired down , that’s the good thing, when this thing originally hit, we were hearing numbers of 320 million dollars of value lost, were now paired down finally to about 110, 115, one of the reasons is because as properties were coming off the rolls and off the values, there was more building going on, whether it be residential or even retail so that helped, you know, offset some of the loss in value but still 115 million is significant for us its about 10 percent, it’s about, it’s a little, its about one point one million dollars lost revenue, for this, you know, for the year, so that, that’s money we have to make up ourselves, now that’s the caveat that I think is important and I’m trying to still work with folks at the state level to come up and help us out with that, with that lost revenues on the, on the INS side or the, you know, that side of our taxation.
KUT News: So the one million comes out of INS not MNL.
KUT News: Did you lose anything on MNL? From the fire?
Murray: You do initially, but again there’s a hold harmless situation like I said you know where, they’ll, they’ll kick in.
KUT News: You’re not a recapture district?
Murray: No, no we are not, no, no, we’re not a, chapter 41 district. So, we’re going to be okay on the MNL side, they’ll be some make up on that side from TEA.
KUT News: So what does it mean to lose a million for INS which is Interest in Sinking right?
Murray: Yes, yes.
KUT News: And it goes towards your bond it looks like?
Murray: Yes, yes.
KUT News: For someone who doesn’t understand anything district finance, and that’s very complicated in Texas, what does that mean for you?
Murray: The, the most simplistic way to respond to that Nathan is just to say that you’ve got an INS fund balance, just like you have a general fund, fund balance, and we’re going to recoup some of that out of fund balance, but we can’t do it all out of there because it’ll deplete the entire fund balance, and you need to keep some of that on your INS side and there’s only a couple of things you can do with that really is pay down debt so we can use that to help offset that one point one million dollars in loss, we just to do some of it again through local, through local funding. But again that’s why we’re asking for them to step up and help and, and we’re still in discussion, still in discussion.
KUT News: Real quick, if you do that does it affect your bond rating at all because you are spending down your fund balance?
Murray: Yes, it can, it can. That’s another thing that we, we would ask for and have asked for and have asked for in the letters that we sent, is to say you know this is a significant event and this should not reflect poorly on our bond rating, so, it’s good that you brought that up, it’s an interesting point, the thing automatically that people wanted to realize is you know, we were already dangerously close, not right at the cap but we were at 44 point five cents on the INS side, 50 cents is the cap, by state mandate, we’re going to automatically, by nobody’s fault other than this natural disaster, you know we’re gonna, we’re going to go to about 48.5 to 49 cents so our, already we have to raise the INS side to help offset some of that loss.
KUT News: So, you higher taxes to help pay for some of this?
KUT News: Any indication from any state leaders, or any one at all that they’re going to- that they can give you that million dollars or if they can help you out because of this disaster that happened through no fault of your-
Murray: No definitive response saying, yes, we will help you out with the one million dollar loss or the one point one million dollar loss we have not received that but we are in dialogue with folks at the state level, our initial response from TEA on that part was they felt like it, that this was- that nothing really could be done. There was nothing in statute that said that, you know that, money set aside for that, my understanding is, the governor does have access to some, some grant money that could help out in situations like this I don’t know if that was used in the case of Rita and other, disasters, but I, understand there is- he does have access to some funding that could help us out, or, or could, you know put some pressure on the legislative, you know, situation and maybe help us out in, in this way. We will eventually recoup, you know, because we’ll make adjustments on the values and things of that nature and we’ll get some, we’ll get some money back from the state eventually. It’s just this initial year is what we were trying to get help with, but like I said, there’s nothing specific in statute or in law that says this money is set aside for districts who have disasters, who lose value, you are pretty much left to fend for yourself, you know, unless you can, you know, unless maybe they can step up with some of that grant money or something of that nature.
KUT News: I just want to- there’s something else that I forgot to ask you about, kind of goes back to during the wildfire, during the crisis and that’s just kind of the communication because I know that, people were having a hard time finding out about their homes and all these different agencies were having to deal with this somewhat unforeseen circumstance and I just wonder, the communication, can you walk me through like communicating with other agencies, was there a lack there, where there any gaps, where were the gaps?
Murray: No you know I really have to say that that really wasn’t a problem, you know, the, the convention center here that was another blessing that we just, we had just built a convention center, because that turned out to be command center for the county emergency management operations, and, which we were a part of, I was there daily for, for press conferences and whatnot and so my communication with, with folks at the state level, with- at the county level and even at the national level, FEMA was, was never a problem it’s never been a problem, I will say this about communication, I’m glad you brought it up, that fact that I was able to get on TV, close to a daily basis and reassure our, our parents and our kids and our staff, especially in those first few days when we were away from school, where we didn’t have direct access to our parents and our kids and our staff, was critical because I was able, because I understood, that so many of our people had lost, their, what we come to know – what we come to take for granted is our ability to communicate and, and to find out what’s going on whether it be internet access, or smart phones or cell phones, so many of those things were lost, in the fire, they were living with, folks either, friends in temporary housing, they were living in hotels, and, so they were watching the TV and so for us to be able to get up there, daily, and tell folks what we were going to do about school, what we were going to do about the free, you know, the free lunch and breakfast, what we were going to do about- just to take care of them. How we were going, able to, help them with the homeless situation designation for their children, that was, that was really a critical thing for us to be able to do that in those first few days on, in those press conferences.
KUT News: But there must have been some uncertainty about where the fire was, I mean I remember following it and emergency management officials would wait for reports back from the front line and they didn’t really I mean they didn’t really know they would hear back from those crews that would return on their 12 hour shifts, not knowing, was that frustrating at all?
Murray: It, it was frustrating, it couldn’t- it certainly wasn’t as frustrating for me as it was for people who didn’t know if their homes were gone or not, and couldn’t- and people that couldn’t get back into their- I was back in my home, I was blessed, we were blessed, we, we, our home was spared, and so I felt for the people that didn’t know, one of the most, memorable things to me was, walking up to the convention center every day and watching our folks stand in front of those list that were in front of the columns out in front of the convention center, watching the lists of homes that were either verified lost or still unknown, or maybe spared, that was a very emotional thing to watch that on a daily basis, and then again, there was so much going on at the convention center, there was, there was such an outpouring and again there was- and that’s another thing we haven’t really talked about, there was, we had so much clothing, we had so many supplies and things like that we had a hard time, finding a place to warehouse it , store all that, in fact at some point, at one point, we had Goodwill come and bring a tractor trailer and pick up a full load of, of clothing and take it because we didn’t have any other place to put it.
We certainly kept a lot of it, and we kept a clothing, shelter over at one of our other buildings, we had the middle school as I said the first week going with our, our actual shelter for our community members but we had over on west campus which is a building next to our Bastrop high school campus, we had a clothing drive there and we had some other items for our folks, food and water and things of that nature, that were set up, but there was such an outpouring and this happened all over the community, I saw tents springing up and there were just piles of, things were piled up because people just, reaching out from all over the united states and Texas, and sending things to us and so, to this day, I know, and it’s great for us because as we, as we start off this coming school year in august, I know we’re still in the neighborhood of 6 to 7 hundred backs with school supplies in them ready to be given out because one thing that people don’t realize is that this isn’t a short term event, the loss of a home, the disruption of things, and people’s lives, it goes on for a while, and so, we, we usually, put together a, a, a school supply drive anyway because like I said, our district’s about 75 percent low SES and so we have a great need, and so, but even more so now , so we’re already, we’re already in good stead with a lot of the supplies ready to go and that was from again, those people from all over, we had, we had districts-I don’t know, I don’t have the number off the top of my head, we had district’s all over the state of Texas, who not only sent us things, they physically came here, I, there was a number of districts who came up in school buses with kids, in their school bus and the buses were filled with supplies and we had elementary schools that did penny drives, and raised hundreds of dollars on penny drives, and then, and then donated that money, to our kids and in that first few months that money for our relief fund for our employees was so critical, I , I just remember before thanksgiving, we had the ability and this, this was a real blessing as a school district and as a superintendent , we had, we had the ability to give 40 thousand dollars in 500 dollar gift cards to our staff members, we did that again, we gave another 40 thousand dollars, of 500 dollar gift cars to our affected staff members before Christmas, so before those two big times when you spend a lot of money on family gatherings and things like that and then obviously gifts for your kids and family members, we were able to step up because- again because other people stepped up and gave us so much from so many different areas.
KUT News: One last question because you have been very generous with your time and I know you gotta get to Dallas, just, can you just, you already touched on this a little, but how, how did you use the school district resources, I mean I know you had a middle school, acting a shelter, what other school district resources were you able to sort of leverage in the crisis response mode?
Murray: Well our own obviously it was our people, that was the resource we leveraged the most, our people stepping up and doing whatever’s need to be done, we had schools all across the district that were, that were set up as far as shelter, I mean not shelters but, drop off sites. We had all of our school pretty much taking items whether it be food, clothing, things like that we also reached out and again, I have to, I have to say to Terry Smith, Dr. Smith at Region 13, they were very generous they sent some folks over to help us, our neighbors down, down the road, Del Valley ISD Dr. Kelley Crook, the superintendent there, they called initially and sent several counselors over in the first week and beyond and obviously that week of school and several weeks of school, we had counselors from Del Valley and other districts here who were helping our kids and our parents, and so, those resources were invaluable, as far as not only our own people but also tapping resources and the, and the generosity of people from the central Texas area so, That was important, it was really important because when you have that, that event of that magnitude you have to have some help, you have to help from the outside, and that’s, and that’s what we really, appreciated that. It helped quite a bit.
KUT News: Great, well thanks for your time Steve.