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Planned Transfer Of Military-Base Schools Resisted

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Washington--In a few months, the Defense Department is expected to decide the fate of 17 schools it operates on domestic military bases.

Some will undoubtedly be earmarked for transfer to neighboring school districts, requiring the districts to absorb thousands of new students who bring with them no additional tax base for the communities.

Those who stand to be affected by the proposed transfers--military parents and educators who work at the base schools, as well as officials of nearby public-school districts--oppose the idea for a variety of educational and financial reasons. And they are gearing up to fight any transfer decisions when the Congress considers the Defense Department's recommendations next year.

"It's essentially an effort to unload 17 school districts with some 37,000 students on the local public schools," said Joseph Brust, superintendent of the military schools at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. But the federal government has a "moral and legal responsibility to educate military dependents," he argued.

"It's going to cost a lot of money and it's going to make a lot of people unhappy," said Mr. Brust, who is president of an organization of superintendents of military-base schools.

The base schools were officially recogduring the 1950's, although some were established before that. Most are in the South.

Some were created because nearby school districts were too rural or too poor to provide an "appropriate" education for base children, while others were established to prevent military children from being sent to segregated schools, base officials say.

Mandated by the Congress

Seeing a way to cut costs, the Congress in 1986 required the Defense Department to submit a plan for transferring the base schools to local responsibility no later than July 1990. The department's plan is to study each school individually and decide which ones can feasibly be transferred.

A recent study by the rand Corporation of six of the schools contends that four could feasibly be transferred--though not without political and practical difficulties and expense. Rand is currently studying the other 11 schools in question.

Defense Department officials failed to respond to repeated requests for information last week.

But other sources said the department is expected to look at the new study and draft its own recommendations for each school early next year. The Congress will probably have to approve the department's plan before it can be implemented, especially if Defense recommends retaining responsibility for some of the schools.

Battle Lines Forming

A battle is likely to ensue on Capitol Hill between those who think the department should get out of the education business and save some money, and those who are hearing from unhappy constituents in the affected communities.

Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina and a member of the Armed Services Committee, which has jurisdiction over the transfer issue, has issued a statement opposing transfer of the three base schools in his home state.

Chris Simpson, a spokesman for Mr. Thurmond, said that the South Carolina schools were likely to be recommended for transfer and that the Senator was responding to requests from constituents on and near the bases to fight any such proposal.

Representative William H. Natcher, whose home state of Kentucky hosts two bases with schools, told constituents shortly after the Congress acted in 1986 that he also opposed transfer of the schools to local responsibility.

In a letter to the Kentucky Education Association, Mr. Natcher, who is a Democrat, proposed that responsibility for the schools be transferred to the Education Department. The department is under the jurisdiction of the Appropriations subcommittee that he chairs.

'Outsiders' Problem

Parents of students who attend base schools say they would have little control over their children's education if it were provided by a district where they are not registered voters and where they would be a minority group. In many cases, parents also contend that the education offered by local schools is inferior to that offered on-base.

"Our judgement is that transfer at any of the sites reviewed will reduce the education program offered to the [base] children," the rand Corporation said in its report. Base schools provide services that are "broader and more individually oriented," according to the report.

Parents and educators also argue that often-transient military children have special needs that can be met only in a special school.

"If a [military] child has to attend school in a local school district, they are often looked upon as outsiders," said Thomas J. Silvester, superintendent of the base schools at Fort Jackson, S.C. "They are transient, and not part of the mainstream."

Mr. Silvester added that base schools, which are not subject to state regulations, can be flexible about their rules when they conflict with family needs.

For example, he said, attendance requirements can be waived if a family must take leave at a certain time, or if they need time to settle down after moving back to the U.S. from overseas.

Sydney Hickey, governmental-relations director for the National Military Family Association, agreed that in many cases, base schools are better for the children they serve.

She noted, however, that the organization would not take a broad position on the transfer issue, but would respond to the Defense Department's recommendations for individual schools.

"Each school needs to be treated as an individual entity," she said. "We don't want to say nothing should be turned over."

"The original reason for the schools is that the kids couldn't get an adequate, free education in the community, and that may have changed in some areas," Ms. Hickey said. "We have to be reasonable about this."

Losses for Educators?

Educators who work in the base schools voice personal worries, in addition to the educational concerns they share with the parents of their students.

If a school is transferred, teachers and administrators could lose their jobs, they say. And while many are likely to be hired by local districts, that may mean a pay cut.

Educators who have amassed federal retirement benefits say they are also concerned about what will happen to them.

"Our goal is going to be to ensure that the education of these children not be jeopardized in any way, and that the rights and working conditions of employment will not be adversely affected for the teachers and other employees involved," said Michael Edwards, governmental-relations director for the National Education Association, which represents some of the teachers who work at base schools.

He said the nea, like the military-family association, would await the Defense Department's report before staking out a detailed position. But the union will fight for preservation of, or compensation for, accrued retirement benefits, he noted.

Educators on and near bases say base commanders also oppose transfers. They fear security problems if rights to portions of their bases are ceded to school districts, and worry that morale would suffer if the special schools were eliminated.

Financial Complications

In many ways, however, local school officials may be faced with the biggest burden. They fear that absorbing the military-base students, with or without their schools, will cost their districts dearly.

A number of the school facilities subject to transfer are in admittedly substandard condition, and would require expensive repairs to meet local standards. The rand report estimates that it would cost $93 million to make needed repairs at all the schools being considered for transfer.

Some districts would also incur other one-time costs, such as purchase of buses.

In addition, school officials point out, children who live on military bases would bring with them no new local revenue, since neither their parents nor the federal government pay local property taxes.

Absorbing them would make districts eligible for larger amounts of impact aid--federal assistance designed to compensate education agencies for a federal installation that hurts them financially.

But in some cases, additional impact aid plus anticipated state contributions for each new student would still not equal the districts' current per-pupil expenditure, forcing them to come up with more local funds or cut services.

At Fort Bragg, for example, rand estimates that the shortfall would be $308 per pupil. That means the Cumberland County school district could have to find an extra $1.4 million in its budget.

John Hudgins, superintendent of the Richland School District in South Carolina, estimated that his district's shortfall would be between $1.2 million and $1.5 million if it were forced to absorb the students attending school at nearby Fort Jackson.

"If we had to go to the local taxpayer for this, it would severely limit what we could do otherwise," Mr. Hudgins said. "We need the money for other things."

Uncertainty of Aid

Moreover, many interested parties fear that the Congress could choose to cut impact-aid funding, worsening the situation of all dis4tricts dependent on it. The program does not have the broad-based political support enjoyed by programs like Chapter 1, which benefits a large number of schools in many Congressional districts.

"When you look at the disparity between what is authorized for impact aid and what is actually funded, you have to worry," Ms. Hickey said. "You can't blame the [local districts] for being reluctant. What are they going to get but more kids and no money?"

John Forkenbrock, executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, said the organization has no position on the transfer issue. But he speculated that impact-aid funding might not rise to meet the additional burden if schools are transferred.

Given current pressure on the federal budget, transferring the base schools could increase the number of districts fighting for pieces of the same small pie, Mr. Forkenbrock said. He estimated that it would take an increase of $60 million to maintain current funding for impacted districts and also cover aid for the newly-eligible base schools.

One solution that will probably be considered by the Defense Department and the Congress is to guarantee large amounts of federal aid for districts accepting new military students and for needed repairs.

But local administrators are skeptical. "The federal government has a way of giving you some money the first year and then cutting it back," Mr. Hudgins said.

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