Members learned Thursday that one of two schools used as special-needs shelters does not have a generator. They plan to form a committee to work with emergency officials.

One of the Marion County schools designated as a special-needs shelter has been without a generator since hurricane season began, School Board members learned Thursday.

The board also learned at its scheduled work session that the School District’s emergency management procedure manual is still in draft form — and hurricane season is half over.

That plan, which is updated annually, lists key contacts and staff instructions about the procedures of opening shelters during an emergency.

The draft was only sent to Preston Bowlin, Marion County’s emergency management director, last Friday. That was after Hurricane Dorian emerged and just before shelters opened.

That emergency management procedure plan is up for approval on the School Board’s regular agenda next Tuesday.

The board decided to create a new policy that will require district staff to update the emergency manual each May before hurricane season.

On paper, the School District has two schools that are assigned to be special-needs shelters during an emergency, like Hurricane Dorian.

But in reality, due to a contract dispute with SECO Energy, one of those sites has been without a generator since hurricane season began.

The School Board decided to create an emergency management committee, which will include one board member, to work with county emergency management officials to make sure all shelters are ready.

Bowlin told the School Board on Thursday that the only self-sustaining special-needs shelter is at West Port High School. That school has a generator and can house up to 600 citizens with special needs, which is more than the number registered countywide.

However, Bowlin said the county must have more than one special-needs shelter. The shelters will be needed in the future to serve Marion’s growing elder population and for those traveling here from other counties seeking shelter.

Bowlin said having only one special-needs shelter is not ideal. “It is not good to put all of your eggs in one basket,” he said.

The reason for his concern is that citizens with special needs should never be put at risk. Though state law does not require emergency managers to provide an air-conditioned shelter, those with special needs do need air conditioning, according to Bowlin. School Board members agree.

West Port housed 25 citizens with special needs during the run-up to Dorian. If the school had filled up, there was not another self-sustaining shelter for citizens needing specialized medical equipment for survival.

Board members said they were not told about a 15-month contract dispute with SECO Energy. The dispute was over a generator that failed at Belleview High, which is the other designated special-needs shelter.

The generator motor burned up because of an overload on Sept. 11, 2017, during Hurricane Irma. It burned up just a few months before the district’s 20-year SECO contract expired.

For eight months in 2018, while a new contract was being negotiated, SECO leased a generator to serve Belleview High. SECO split the cost of the lease payment with the district.

That meant the district only paid a $10,000 monthly fee — the same it had paid for the past 20 years. SECO paid $80,000 over eight months out of its pocket in 2018 to help out the district while the contract was finalized. But it never was finalized.

During the contract negotiations, district officials challenged wording of a new contract, which did not address liability. The district felt that SECO should take on the liability if a generator failed.

Gene Kanikovsky, SECO’s chief financial officer, told the School Board that his company purchased a $1.6 million generator designed specifically to run Belleview High.

Kanikowvsky told the board that he was able to get $800,000 from FEMA to put toward the new generator since it failed during the hurricane.

SECO planned to lease the new generator to the district for $11,170 per month, slightly more than the district paid the nonprofit power company for 20 years, beginning in 1998.

Kanikovsky said he thought the deal was a “no-brainer” for the district. But because of the dispute over liability, the district decided to pursue a grant to buy three generators.

But those three generators combined do not have the capacity of the new generator that the SECO purchased. It would take all three generators to run the Belleview High shelter, including air conditioning.

Officials said the grant states that each generator must be placed at three different schools: West Port and Belleview high schools and Belleview Middle School.

And even if they could use them all at one site, the three generators are not made to connect together.

In January, SECO sent the district a 30-day contract termination letter, stating it was ending negotiations. That meant the partnership at Belleview High was over and SECO took back the generator. SECO ended up using the $1.6 million generator it purchased as a backup at one of its sites.

Because Belleview High did not have a generator, Bowlin made plans for 2019 to turn Forest High School into a special-needs shelter if needed. The Forest High generator does not have the capacity to run the air conditioning.

Bowlin said his backup plan at Forest is to bring in another generator to run fans and portable air conditioning units if needed during an emergency.

The board apologized to Kanikovsky for the breakdown in communication. Board members said they were never told that there were contract issues and thought Belleview High currently had a generator.

Member Beth McCall suggested creating an emergency management committee, which will include one board member, to work with Bowlin on shelter issues in the future. The School Board asked Kanikovsky if SECO would be willing to work on another deal to provide the generator.

Kanikovsky said he could, but because the FEMA money was used to buy the other generator, the lease payments would now be about $16,000 to $20,000.

The generator at West Port High, which was installed in 2000, is also leased to the district by SECO. A new contract will come before the board in 2020. Kanikovsky assured the board that he will work in good faith with them to renew the deal, considering that generator is still in good working order.

Joe Callahan can be reached at 867-4113 or at joe.callahan@starbanner.com