FEMA approves $17.5 million to repair East St. John High _lowres

East St. John High School surrounded by floodwaters in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac. in LaPlace, La., Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Federal emergency officials have allocated $17.5 million for repairs on two St. John the Baptist Parish schools that have been shuttered since Hurricane Isaac battered them in 2012, and local officials are optimistic that more money is on the way as they work to get the facilities back up and running.

Last year, the St. John School Board applied for disaster funding through a pilot program from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, implemented as part of the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act. The initiative was intended to expedite repairs on the two schools, Lake Pontchartrain Elementary in LaPlace and East St. John High in Reserve.

Jennifer Boquet, a district spokeswoman, said Monday that FEMA has authorized an initial $17.5 million round of funding, which will pay for repairs at the high school. The district applied for $39.3 million overall, and Boquet said school officials expect the balance of their request will be allocated in September.

After limited progress in the nearly two years since the buildings flooded, School Board members are expected to consider awarding a contract for repairs at East St. John High during their meeting Thursday.

Work at the high school is expected to include demolishing some areas of the campus as well as removing mold and cleaning the buildings. The school’s heating and cooling systems will be upgraded, and the exterior of two buildings will be replaced. In addition, new gym bleachers and cafeteria equipment are slated to be installed, as well as new flooring, ceiling tiles and wallboards.

Work at the elementary school is still in the preliminary planning stages, Boquet said. That facility is expected to be demolished and a new, elevated school built in its place.

Boquet said school officials are optimistic that East St. John High will reopen by the 2015-16 school year and that Lake Pontchartrain will be ready a year later.

In addition to the federal disaster relief, additional money will come from the proceeds of a bond issue St. John voters approved in May, which will raise as much as $10.4 million.

The bond issue, which passed with 65 percent of the vote, will be paid for from an existing 10-mill property tax. The bonds, to be paid off within 20 years, are intended to cover an expected gap between the available federal disaster money and the actual cost of rebuilding the schools.

From the start, getting the rebuilding projects in motion has been slowed by more than a monetary shortfall. School officials haggled for months over trying to choose a company to be in charge of the work.

Originally, a panel of school executives and community leaders recommended choosing CSRS Inc., of Baton Rouge, — which managed St. John schools’ $46 million capital improvement program in 2008 — to oversee what was estimated at $65 million in work on the two schools. The board voted instead to hire Hammerman & Gainer International, but that deal later was rescinded because the New Orleans disaster recovery firm was not licensed for the job.

The board then hired All South Consulting Engineers, of Metairie, which has since managed much of the project, including negotiations with FEMA.

“The fund obligation announcement was much needed after a year of working together as one to get our schools reopened,” Superintendent Kevin George said in a statement Monday. “When we pull together and place children first, great things happen. Although this is good news, I will not rest nor will I be satisfied until our children are back where they belong.”

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.