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Defense Officials Oppose Transfer Of Base Schools

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Washington--The Pentagon has informed Congressional leaders that it does not want to act on a controversial plan to transfer the responsibility for some 37,000 students who now attend schools on military bases to nearby public-school districts.

In a Dec. 30 letter to key lawmakers, Deputy Secretary of Defense William H. Taft 4th cited political and logistical problems that he said would preclude an "amicable transfer of our students at this time."

The Congress in 1986 had pressed the Defense Department to consider such a move as a means of achieving a savings in the military budget. It was unclear last week whether there will be any interest in the new Congress in forcing the issue over the department's opposition.

"While the specific circumstances for each location vary," the Defense official wrote, "I have concluded that the strong opposition of the local communities that would have to absorb our students, the grave concerns of our military parents that transfers would compromise the quality of their children's education, and the substantial economic, logistics, and personnel problems associated with transfers prevent the amicable transfer of our students at this time."

"The vast majority of these minor dependents are elementary-school children who are transient and constantly uprooted due to their parents' commitment to serve our nation," Mr. Taft continued. "Their futures should not be jeopardized."

"[U]nder current conditions," transfers would effect no more than ''minimal savings," he contended, and could endanger harmonious relations between military bases and nearby communities.

Widespread Opposition

Virtually everyone who would be affected by the transfers opposes them, for a variety of educational and financial reasons.

Military parents and educators at the base schools think base children are better served by the dod schools. Many public-school officials fear the impact of thousands of new students who, they believe, would not be accompanied by adequate federal funding. And employees at the base schools worry about what would happen to their jobs and retirement benefits. (See Education Week, Dec. 14, 1988.)

"Nobody is in favor of this idea, and it ought to be dropped now," said Christopher Simpson, a spokesman for Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina and a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Prompted by complaints from constituents at or near three bases with schools in his state, Mr. Thurmond had already launched an anti-transfer campaign.

Congressional sources said that the transfer idea was first raised several years ago by other members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees.

The legislators hoped to cut the military budget by getting the Defense Department out of the education business.

A 1986 military-construction bill required the dod to submit a plan for transferring the base schools to local responsibility no later than July 1990.

Report language accompanying the defense authorization bill that year pushed the department to begin "active negotiations" with local officials. Although technically non-binding, the report also threatened to withhold school-construction funds except "as part of a specific negotiated operation or funding option, or if the Secretary [of Defense] certifies that transfer for a particular school is not feasible."

The plan submitted by Defense officials in 1986 called for studying each school individually. Now that the results are in, Mr. Taft said in his letter, "I urge you to accept my recommendation to retain the dod Section 6 schools as they are currently operated."

He argued that the Defense Department had "fully met Congress's guidance to study the feasibility of transferring educational responsibility for our students."

"We believe we have complied with the requirements of Congress, and that's where it stands," added a department spokesman.

Congressional Response

Congressional aides last week said they did not yet know if legislators would accept the decision or overrule it.

A staff member who has worked on the transfer issue said legislators do not have to take any formal ac4tion in order to accept the department's decision. If they disagree with the decision, on the other hand, they could vote to require the dod to go ahead with the transfers.

"Frankly, I'm not sure if members are going to be satisfied by the re8sponse from Secretary Taft or not," the aide said. "Personalities have changed, time has gone by, and members may be ready to drop the issue, but I don't know yet."

He said the 1990 defense budget proposed last week does not call for construction funds for the base schools--a request that, had it been made, might have revived the transfer debate. However, he said, the issue may be resolved during action on the annual defense authorization bill.

"No improvements have been made to these schools for years, and the children have suffered in that respect," the aide said. "It doesn't necessarily have to come up, but we ought to give the department a signal one way or the other."

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