In his first year as superintendent of Minot's public schools, Mark Vollmer is stepping into a mess: Record flooding wrecked six of his schools, forcing the district to delay the start of the year and many of his students and teachers haven't yet returned to their homes.
Vollmer, who spent the past six years as the North Dakota district's high school principal, says he doesn't have time to be overwhelmed.
"No one is spending any time here having a pity party," he said. "We're digging in and taking care of business. We've got to."
Minot schools open their doors on Tuesday, a week behind schedule after the worst flooding in the city's history. The Souris River waters that pushed 11,000 people from their homes and damaged hundreds of businesses also took a heavy toll on schools. Three of six damaged schools could be beyond saving.
Nearly 20 percent of the district's 7,000 students will attend classes in replacement classrooms set up in churches, the city auditorium and dozens of portable trailer-like buildings scattered around town, an arrangement that may last two or three years. Yet there are positives: Class sizes and staff sizes will remain largely the same. And Vollmer, 45, said the start of school will be a relief to students whose lives remain chaotic more than two months after the flooding hit.
"They will be able to get back in the groove of hanging out with friends and learning," said Vollmer.
Summer vacation this year was not much of a vacation.
"There was no state fair. No zoo. The parks were closed. There was no baseball in town this summer," Vollmer said. "Activities and fun were limited for kids. We want to make sure school gets them back into as normal a pattern as possible."
One-fourth of the district's staff and students were chased from their homes by the flooding this summer, he said. Many families have moved in with friends or relatives, or in portable housing provided by the federal government. A 4-mile swath through town that took the brunt of the flooding is littered with derelict houses and debris as residents weigh whether to rebuild or walk away from their homes.
Minot was the hardest-hit area in spring and summer flooding that will cost an estimated $1 billion statewide. The federal government will cover most of that, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency has already doled out more than $300 million in individual help and public infrastructure repairs, mostly in Minot. A community fund set up for the Minot area has raised more than $3 million so far and got another bump over Labor Day weekend from a benefit concert featuring the Black Eyed Peas.
Since waters receded a few weeks ago, workers have mucked out mud and gutted the hardest-hit schools: Ramstad Middle School and Longfellow and Lincoln elementaries. Workers in respirators, hard hats and white coveralls continue to clean the affected buildings, which also have suffered structural damage and mold.
In most of those classrooms, only rusted wall-mounted pencil sharpeners remain and a dead fish stench wafts through hallways. Officials are awaiting word from FEMA about whether the buildings are worth saving at a cost sure to run in the tens of millions of dollars.
School officials say most computers and textbooks were removed before the floodwaters hit. Some teachers lost supplies and lesson plans.
Lana Martin, a special education teacher at Ramstad, set up her classroom last week in a room at the city auditorium. School officials are using all available rooms at the venue. The arena floor will be used for classes along with serving as lunchroom and gym.
"I think that with all we've been through, our staff and students are pretty upbeat for the most part," Martin said. "I think we'll have a good year." And she saw an upside to her new digs: air conditioning, something that the more than 50-year-old Ramstad school lacked.
School officials say more than $100,000 in school supplies have been donated by companies, community groups and individuals. One Texas woman made the two-day drive to North Dakota to donate 100 backpacks stuffed with school supplies: notebooks, folders, crayons, stuffed animals, $10 bills and a personal note.
Ramstad Principal Jim Tschetter helped give tours of the temporary school last week for students signing up for classes. He said the city auditorium may serve as the middle school for an additional two or three years, until the old school is refurbished or a new one is built.
"A building isn't the school," Tschetter said. "Students and teachers make the school."
"I think it's going to be cool," 13-year-old Alyssa McDonald said of her new school at the city auditorium. "It's definitely going to be different and the gym is going to be a lot bigger."
Sammy Harwood, a seventh-grader, said she was saddened by the destruction of Ramstad school. But she was impressed at the progress in getting the city auditorium _ which normally hosts circuses, sporting events and trade shows _ set up for students.
"I'm excited," the 12-year-old said. "They made sure we had a school."