In April 1983, Kelly Runnels had just relocated his growing elementary school to newly purchased property along South Harrells Ferry Road when the rains began. The historic flood of that year brought water to within 16 inches of his new campus.
Thirty-three years later, he wasn’t so lucky. Floodwater submerged every building on the campus, which was much larger than it was in the 1980s. As in 1983, the water was from the nearby Amite River.
Runnels initially assessed the damage of the school from the seat of a canoe. When the water dropped, work began to repair the devastated campus and hasn’t stopped since.
“It’s been hard, hard in every kind of way,” he said.
Runnels, then an LSU chemistry professor, began what became Runnels School with his first wife in 1965 in the back of his College Town house with just three students. He continued to run the school on the side while he worked for LSU for 32 years.
In 2015, Runnels and his second wife, Gladys, whom he credits for the school’s signature focus on the arts, celebrated the school’s 50th anniversary. Runnels School is also unusual in Baton Rouge in that it is an independent private school not affiliated with a church.
The Runnels School celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding at a gala and fundraiser …
Enrollment is now more than 700 students, from pre-school to 12th grade. Its main campus is at 17255 South Harrells Ferry Road, though its preschool, which did not flood, is located across town at 6455 Jefferson Highway.
Now 78, Kelly Runnels no longer heads the school, although he continues as president of the nonprofit corporation that oversees it. He says he and his wife are retired, though that’s become something of a bitter joke.
“I’ve never worked so hard in my life as when I’m retired,” Runnels said.
Longtime educator Greg Brandao has taken over as headmaster of Runnels School.
With the campus still flooded, Runnels leaders called off the planned Aug. 15 first day of school, and scrambled to find an alternative home. It found two: Broadmoor United Methodist Church to house grades five to 12, and fellow private school, Brighton Academy for grades one to four. Classes resumed at Broadmoor on Aug. 24, and in the other grades by Aug. 29.
Repairs at the main campus have moved fast, as fast as repairs at any of the flooded schools in the greater Baton Rouge area. The school is shooting to reopen by Halloween.
The school has hired two contractors: US Restoration LLC based in Jefferson Parish, is remediating the flooding, and McMath Construction of Mandeville is handling the repairs and rebuilding.
US Restoration's part is nearly done. It has declared two high school buildings officially clear of mold and is readying to clear several more. Wayne Catalano, US Restoration’s president, said he’s not worried about potential parent complaints.
"When they see how clean those rooms are, they are going to want to sleep in there," Catalano said.
Rob Parker, a parent and a member of the board of trustees, said getting back into the main campus quickly is a must, despite concerns with how the school will pay for the estimated $4.5 million in damage.
"We can't wait," Parker said. "We won't be a school if we wait."
Repair to the buildings serving elementary grades are running behind those for the upper grades, but after initial delays those are moving now as well.
“Before we can reopen any of the buildings, we have to have all the buildings squared away first,” Parker said.
The auditorium, a centerpiece of the school, is presenting a special challenge. The floodwater destroyed every seat, a mixing board that had recently been installed, even the grand piano on the stage, itself a replacement of one damaged when the auditorium's roof collapsed during 2005’s Hurricane Rita.
“(The auditorium) was a bowl,” Parker recalled. “There were crawfish and fish swimming around there for days.”
“You could have given swimming lessons in that theater,” Catalano said.
During a Sept. 14 visit, the auditorium floor was still wet. Trickles of water burbled up through cracks in the foundation. A sump pump which burned out during the flooding has been replaced and is steadily drawing the water out. Repairs, though, can’t begin until it’s all dry.
Next door to the auditorium is the gym. Higher up than other parts of the campus, it was one of the first buildings restored, though the ruined gym floor will need to be replaced. Its second floor, which has a few classrooms, never got wet.
The inside of the gym has been turned into a “clean room,” the place where everything that’s been salvaged and cleaned is being stored. Parker pointed to stacks of desks and table salvaged, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Much, though, had to be junked. And some things just disappeared, including the “Runnels” school sign screwed into the brick marquee at the front of the school.
The gym floor is covered with white garbage bags filled with salvaged items separated by classroom. The school is pulling items from these bags and sending them to teachers as requested.
Mark Landry, wasn't so lucky. He has no white garbage bags to draw from.
“Every now and then I think of something and go, “I wish I had that!” Landry said.
Landry’s new home is in Room 201C in the Adult Education Building at Broadmoor United Methodist Church. It is one of 27 classrooms Runnels has set up at the church, at 10230 Mollylea Drive.
Landry does not have Room 201C all to himself. He shares it with three other teachers. It’s the high school math department in action all at once. Algebra is to his right, Algebra II is directly across and Geometry is diagonal to him. Landry himself teaches calculus, precalculus and trigonometry and is head of the math department.
His colleagues have small school-supplied dry erase boards, but Landry, who likes to write big, decided to build his own, complete with a homemade easel of sorts.
“I got a neighbor to build what I call a ‘lean-to,’” he said.
The buzz of four classrooms operating at once has obvious potential for distraction. In practice, students appear to be on task. The school used tall dividers at first to separate the teachers, but the dividers soon broke and were abandoned.
”With four things going, it’s better than just two, where you hear everything they say,” Landry said. “With four, it’s background noise.”
The crowding has its upsides, he said.
“I enjoy the opportunity to watch my fellow teachers,” he said. “Don’t get to do that normally.”
Walk out of Room 201C and look down the stairwell, Runnels’ makeshift Main Office appears. Administrators are working on couches and coffee tables. At class change, children flood through this tiny space.
“We had no idea that we were capable of putting together a new school in three days,” said Conchetta Foshee, assistant head of school.
“Runnels is a machine that works,” noted Head of School Marcia Mackay. “We just put it in another place.”
Of the Louisiana school districts affected by the floods, Livingston Parish is reporting the…
Broadmoor’s chorus building is now the Runnels music department. Student are blowing horns, depressing piano keys, bowing strings, or plucking harps, an instrument often identified with Runnels.
“It’s like being back in music school,” said David Shaler, the church’s music director. “I hear music coming from every room.”
It's not what it was. For instance, Johnice Thomas, who teaches piano and chorus at Runnels, is using her old music, much of which was stored above the floodwaters, but her piano instructional books didn’t survive.
She’s also managed to cobble together eight acoustic and digital pianos. The 11 pianos at the main campus, though, were destroyed.
“They were swimming. They are not supposed to swim,” Thomas said. “They aren’t meant to be amphibious.”
Runnels was able to reopen quickly thanks to serendipitous personal connections with both Broadmoor United Methodist Church and Brighton Academy.
At Broadmoor, newly installed Senior Pastor Donnie Wilkinson had just moved to Baton Rouge from Alexandria weeks before the flooding. His wife was newly hired as a fifth-grade teacher at Runnels and his two children had just enrolled. When he heard of the school’s plight, he quickly offered the school space at the church while they rebuilt. He said Runnels has added greatly to what is during much of the week an underused church facility.
“Just to see so much vitality is amazing,” Wilkinson said. “They bring joy to our lives.”
In the case of Brighton Academy, a Brighton teacher is married to someone who teaches at Runnels.
Brighton specializes in helping children with dyslexia, dysphasia and related maladies. As it happened, Brighton had unused space at its 9150 Bereford Drive and offered it up. Runnels accepted and has nine classrooms serving children in grades one to four.
Kenneth Henderson, Brighton’s principal and executive director, said having Runnels students on their campus has required adjusting. Dyslexic children work best in small groups with little distraction, but after some initial getting-used-to-each-other, the two schools have been able to work well alongside each other, he said.
“It was good coming together,” Henderson said. “That’s one thing I’ve seen with this whole flood situation. We’ve had a lot of people reach out and helping another.”
Like many flooded schools, Runnels has also received help from generous individuals, former students, and from other schools.
But the damage is costing more than the money that has come in so far. Kelly Runnels said after insurance, FEMA reimbursement and other proceeds are factored in, he’s guessing that the school will need to raise about $1 million to pay its bills.
So far, he said, only a handful of its 700-plus students have transferred to other schools, but if the school doesn’t get back home soon, he’s worried that won’t last and the financial hole will get deeper.
“If you can’t give parents some hope that you’ll come back, they’ll go someplace else,” Runnels said.
He said Runnels is keeping tuition flat for this year and next, but it will increase $500 for all students in the 2018-19 school year to help defray loans the school is preparing to take out. Base tuition, for those who pay early and in full, ranges from $7,100 in preschool to $9,200 for high school.
Board member Parker said Runnels is working to catch up with other established private schools in tapping its alumni for donations.
“We are not big on that, but we are trying to get better,” he admitted.
For Parker, returning Runnels' main campus to operation is is not just financial, but crucial to restoring Runnel’s sense of identify.
"The school, yes, it's the people,” he said. “But it is also the place. It’s the feeling of the place.”