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THURSDAY, MARCH 22, 2007
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Panel OKs $32 million for schools in tornado

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — A state Senate committee approved a record $32 million in state funding Wednesday to rebuild tornado-ravaged schools in Enterprise, but parents and officials worry if it's enough to replace what they lost.

The Senate Finance and Taxation-Education Committee passed the appropriation 16-0 after an emotional meeting where one committee member shed tears and Enterprise parents watched intently.

"We're grateful for what they did, but it's not going to be enough," said Denine Richey, who has three children in Enterprise schools.

Toni Nolin, also the mother of three children in the Enterprise system, said it was hard to watch the committee approve what she considers insufficient funds to rebuild quickly and get children out of temporary quarters.

"My children are going to school half a day. I feel they aren't getting the education they need," she said.

A tornado hit Enterprise on March 1, tearing apart Hillcrest Elementary School and Enterprise High School, where eight students died.

At the request of Enterprise and state education officials, the Alabama House voted last week to allocate $79 million in state funds for rebuilding the two schools.

That appropriation provided that Enterprise would pay back to the state any funds it gets through insurance and federal disaster payments.

The Senate Finance and Taxation-General Fund Committee rewrote the House-passed appropriation to provide a lump sum of $32 million, with Enterprise keeping any insurance and federal disaster payments it receives.

Committee Chairman Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said the approach in the House-passed bill had never been used before, and he was concerned about the state fronting all the money. "If we set the wrong precedent here, it's going to come back to haunt us," he said.

He said the $32 million appropriation, which could come up for a vote in the Senate next week, would be the largest amount ever provided by the state to rebuild schools destroyed by a natural disaster.

Enterprise High School housed about 1,300 students and Hillcrest 600. Perry Taylor, architect for the State Department of Education, estimated that with the anticipated growth in Enterprise, it would take $59 million to rebuild a high school for 1,600 students, including athletic facilities, and $16.7 million to rebuild the elementary school for 700 students— both at a new location. That would put the total cost at $75.7 million.

Kippy Tate, the director of the State Building Commission, estimated it would take $51 million to rebuild the schools for the number of students they had, without any money for athletic facilities or land acquisition.

The Department of Education's architect estimated the replacement cost at $47 million.

Sanders, who proposed the $32 million, said that amount plus estimated insurance payments should give Enterprise about $60 million for construction.

The sponsor of the House-passed bill, Rep. Terry Spicer, D-Enterprise, told the committee that local citizens are appreciative of the $32 million, but there is no certainty about how much insurance companies will provide or when the money will be available.

"We'd like to reserve the right to come back and talk to you," he told the committee.

Several committee members said the Legislature traditionally helps a damaged school system rebuild what it had, but not expand.

"This situation has been made different because of the eight lives lost," Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, said. "But Lord knows, we've got to make decisions fair to every school system in this state."

She began to cry as she recalled how her son's high school, LeFlore, won the regional basketball pairings with Enterprise, and students from LeFlore were participating in the state basketball tournament in Birmingham when the tornado hit Enterprise. If Enterprise High School had won the regional pairings, many of its students might have gone to Birmingham.

"I said, Lord, if we had just lost, maybe those children would be alive today, but that wasn't God's will," Figures said.

Enterprise's senator, Jimmy Holley, D-Elba, has been at odds with the Senate's Democratic leadership, voting against it in the Senate's organizational session in January. But Senate Majority Leader Zeb Little, D-Cullman, said the Senate was not playing politics with the Enterprise appropriation.

"We weren't and we haven't," Little said.

Holley declined to respond, saying, "I'm trying to build a school."

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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