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Louisiana in fear of collapse

Officials say without money to pay salaries teachers will leave for good. Jacqui Goddard reports from New Orleans.

UNITED STATES. Education officials in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana say the state's school system will not survive the aftermath of the storm without an additional $2.4 billion (pound;1.3bn) from the US government.

Thousands of teachers who lost their homes and whose schools were ruined when Hurricane Katrina struck last month will not be paid unless the federal education department approves the request, said Cecil Picard, Louisiana's superintendent of schools. As a result, they will probably move to other states to find jobs, he said.

The money is needed to pay salaries and benefits that cannot be met from existing funds.

The state receives a set amount of money per student each school year, but faces a serious shortfall this year because more than 186,000 pupils have been displaced by the storm.

"The fear is that our teachers, and other school staff, such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers and administrative workers, will go elsewhere," said Meg Casper, spokeswoman for the Louisiana education department.

"Our hope is that if we can keep their pay cheques whole, we can keep them in the state."

Schools in St Bernard parish will stay closed for the entire academic year and Orleans parish is expected to follow suit.

With no homes to return to, many families are deciding to remain in the cities to which they were evacuated and enrol their children in schools there instead.

There are no official figures but Ms Casper estimates that "tens of thousands" of Louisiana pupils have already started school in neighbouring Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and several other states.

Florida is the only state to have reported a figure, saying that 6,000 evacuee children have enrolled there.

More than 37,000 students from New Orleans have re-enrolled in schools elsewhere in Louisiana, further complicating the state's education finances.

Mr Picard acknowledged that the education department has approved a $2.6bn aid package, money that will go largely to school districts that have accepted evacuees. But he expressed concern that it would not cover displaced teachers' salaries.

Meanwhile, the state has set up a website on which teachers and staff can register that they are looking for work and where school districts seeking qualified help to cope with the evacuee influx can find the help they need.

According to Ms Casper, so far 210 teachers have found work elsewhere in Louisiana.

Despite wishing to keep as many employees as possible on the payroll so that schools can eventually reopen with a full complement of staff, Louisiana officials do not want to stand in the way of teachers who have left and plan to rebuild their lives in other states.

Ms Casper said: "We've told them, 'Seek employment where you are.' We understand that teachers have to take care of themselves and their families first, and we want to do all we can to help."

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