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  • Justin Smith

Lawmakers waive up to 20 school days and create $56.5 million Disaster Recovery Fund

The state has created a $56.5 million Disaster Recovery Fund to assist with Hurricane Florence response and is allowing school districts impacted the most to waive up to 20 days of class. The legislation also pays school employees for the days they missed due to the storm. The General Assembly unanimously adopted the two bills in a special session Tuesday and Gov. Roy Cooper signed them into law the following day.

Both members of Columbus County’s legislative delegation, Sen. Danny Britt (R-Robeson) and Rep. Brenden Jones (R-Columbus), sponsored the measures. The House Speaker selected Jones to serve as the chamber’s presiding officer and sign the ratified bills that were sent to the governor.

Britt referred to the funding as a “downpayment,” and both lawmakers said more money will be needed.

“This is something that is a step in the right direction, but it is in no way, shape or form the final step,” Britt said. “The amount of money that was budgeted yesterday in no means comes close to funding the recovery for Hurricane Florence.”

Lawmakers dipped into the state’s “rainy day” reserves to create the Disaster Recovery Fund, which will largely provide matches for federal emergency assistance dollars.

“That’s exactly why we’ve been fiscally conservative with our monies, putting them to the side for days just like this,” Jones said. “We knew it was coming. Here it is, and we’re ready.”

Jones said the needs throughout his district are varied and he has received “calls about every single thing you can imagine,” from roofs on houses to no food or clothing for families.

“Hurricane Florence is not going to be a one-day or one-week event,” he said. “It’s going to go on for months. The devastation gets greater every day as the water recedes and as we’re looking at what is going on.”

After signing the legislation Wednesday, Cooper said Florence “deeply wounded” North Carolina.

“The bills I’ve signed today help students and teachers, protect voter access and make an initial down payment on the cost of this recovery,” he said. “When a storm rolls in, it doesn’t come with a party label and our response can’t either. I will continue working with legislators from both parties to help Florence survivors.”

School calendar

The legislation rests the decision about waiving school days in the hands of the local systems. Columbus County Schools missed 13 days as a result of Hurricane Florence; Whiteville City Schools missed 10. Both districts were waiting on the legislation before adjusting their calendars, although Whiteville City Schools decided to have a full day of class Wednesday instead of a half day as planned.

Neither Jones nor Britt feared that waiving the school days would affect students’ learning outcomes.

“I think we’re going to be in fine shape,” Jones said, noting that his two school-age daughters have caught up in recent days after returning to class. He added that the impact would be greater for students in other counties who had missed more days.

Britt said waiving the missed days is a better option than “having school go deep into the summer,” which creates childcare issues and other burdens for some families.

“A lot of schools kind of build in the last couple weeks where there’s not a whole lot of instruction taking place anyway,” he said.

Other relief measures

During the special session, lawmakers also extended the deadline for voter registration until 5 p.m. on Oct. 15. The cutoff had been Oct. 12.

The legislation also lays out a process allowing county elections boards to switch out early voting or Election Day voting sites damaged by the hurricane.

Also included in the laws is permission for the governor to waive a number of Division of Motor Vehicles fees for residents of counties impacted by the hurricane. The waivers are for: a duplicate drivers license, special ID card, application for duplicate or corrected certificate of title, replacement registration plate, application for a duplicate registration card, and late payment of a registration renewal fee. The waivers will be retroactive to Sept. 13 and continue until Dec. 31.

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Raleigh Oct. 15 to consider additional hurricane relief measures.

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