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Districts Are Already Feeling the Effects of Military-Base Closings

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By Julie A. Miller

Washington--The Defense Department has begun shutting down military installations targeted for closing last year by a special commission, and school districts are already feeling the repercussions.

According to the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, 8 of the 91 defense installations scheduled for closing or major cutbacks contribute enough students to nearby districts for their loss to threaten those school systems with serious financial problems.

Fifteen school districts are expected to receive sizeable influxes of new students as their parents transfer there from the bases that are set to close, and others will experience lesser enrollment gains and losses.

It is impossible to predict with precision all the effects of these changes, those close to the situation say.

But they will surely mean years of upheaval for some schools, the observers add, and significant changes in the operation and politics of the federal impact-aid program, which compensates districts whose revenue is limited by the presence of federal property or workers.

To Timothy R. Monahan, the superintendent of schools in Portsmouth, N.H., the changes mean the loss of almost a quarter of his students and the revenue they generate, including more than $2 million a year in impact aid. Nearby Pease Air Force Base is the first large installation scheduled to close, with a projected completion date of next January.

"We have 1,000 base students," Mr. Monahan said. "By September, I expect to have 200 left, and then they will slowly leave."

The district will be forced to close two schools, said Mr. Monahan, who has cut his budget by $2.5 million and laid off 200 employees in preparation for the next school year. He said the district faces a $330,000 bill for unemployment-insurance payments.

Ultimately, he said, schools are likely to lose discretionary programs.

"What about the kid who's half way through German when we have to drop it?" Mr. Monahan asked. "That's who will really pay for this."

Some states may step in with extra aid. But many predict that upcoming Congressional action may have a larger overall impact on how affected districts weather the impending change.

Unfavorable E.D. Ruling

A section of the impact-aid law guarantees a district that loses students as a result of a decrease in federal activity 90 percent of its allotment for the previous year for each of the first three years of the cutback.

Until a few months ago, districts bracing for cutbacks thought they would be guaranteed that amount of aid.

But at a March meeting, Charles Hansen, director of impact aid at the Education Department, delivered some bad news. When he looked at the law more closely, Mr. Hansen said last week, he realized that he had missed something.

The law provides that the portion of a district's allocation paid for departed students "shall be deemed to be attributable to determinations of children" under a section describing so-called "b" students, whose parents either live or work on federal property.

The department has interpreted this to mean that districts are entitled only to "b" payments for the children who have left, even though they may have been "a" children. Payments for "a" students--whose parents both live and work on federal property--range from 80 percent to 96 percent greater than those for students in the "b" category.

If the law is applied the way the department interprets it, Portsmouth would receive about $250,000 in impact aid the first year after Pease closes, Mr. Monahan said. The district received about $2.2 million from the program last year, he said, and would get about $1.9 million the first year after the closing of the base under the original interpretation of the 90-percent rule.

Legislation Being Drafted

When the provision was enacted in 1978, payments for "b" students were relatively higher, and that amount was probably deemed appropriate, said John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the NAFIS, which is pushing for a legislative change.

An aide on the Senate education subcommittee said such a measure is being drafted, but how much it would provide the affected schools has not been decided.

The aide said the bill would authorize transition funding separately from the main impact-aid program, so that it would not draw on the program's regular funds.

Unless the transition funds were made an entitlement, proponents would then have to persuade appropriators to fund the separate line item each year.

While he supports a separate authorization, Mr. Forkenbrock expressed concern that the Congress might appropriate less for the regular program to accommodate the new effort.

"The question is, do you pay districts for kids they don't have at the expense of districts that have the kids?" Mr. Hansen said.

Education Department officials told lawmakers that the base closings did not necessitate an increase in the impact-aid budget for fiscal 1991, in which the Bush Administration proposed slashing payments for "b" children.

The fiscal effects of one base closing in 1991 are manageable, Mr. Hansen said, but "it will be an issue in 1992."

Unanswered Questions

The other seven targeted bases identified by the impact-aid association as crucial to nearby districts are to be closed or partially shut down between 1992 and 1994. But some will begin losing employees in the years before their closure dates.

For example, the completion date for scaling back activity at Fort Dix, N.J., is September 1993, but employees are to begin leaving this fall, a Defense Department official said.

Several superintendents complained last week that they had not received enough information from the government.

David Kincaid, superintendent of the Adelanto, Calif., elementary-school district, said he expects eventually to lose 1,200 of his 2,280 students, $3.9 million in state aid, and $1.7 million in impact aid. He said county education officials estimate that, if the district continued all its programs, "we would have a $3-million-per-year problem in balancing our budget."

But he does not exactly know when this will happen.

George Air Force Base in nearby Victorville is scheduled to close in October 1992. Information provided piecemeal by base employees indicates that the students will leave between the spring of 1991 and the summer of 1992, Mr. Kincaid said, but he would like a more definite schedule.

A recent count turned up 79 fewer "base children" than one taken in October, Mr. Kincaid said, "and I have to wonder why."

In any case, several superintendents noted, it is hard to predict how many civilian employees would remain behind after their bases close, and how many soldiers would leave a spouse and children behind to finish out a school year.

Richard Purvis, superintendent of the Clovis, N.M., schools, which are expected to gain a large number of students during the realignment, said the state legislature anticipated the problem last year, and approved legislation allowing state officials to allocate more money in that event.

Effect on Aid Program

The realignment's effect on the impact-aid program is also unpredictable, Mr. Hansen and Mr. Forkenbrock agreed.

In the short run, they said, there will be greater demand for impact aid, as districts losing students demand transition funding and those receiving more students apply for aid on their behalf.

That could result in the government paying twice for the same children, as districts can count impact-aid students any time up to the Jan. 31 application deadline, and those with late arrivals can make a second count and average it with the first.

In the long run, they said, the composition of the program is likely to change as a result of the realignment.

Bases receiving more children may be pushed into new categories, entitling them to more aid per child. And many "a" children now living on bases may move to areas where base housing is full and thus become ''b" students.

Such an outcome would probably shift more funds, over all, to "b" students, Mr. Forkenbrock said, and could create more political support for payments on behalf of those students.

The bases to be closed or cut back were selected by a bipartisan commission appointed by the Secretary of Defense. (See Education Week, Jan. 11, 1989.)

In all, according to the commission, 58,500 military and civilian personnel will lose their jobs or be transferred. But there will be 37,850 new jobs or assignments at other bases.

The commission's intent was to bypass political considerations. The Congress and the Defense Department had to accept or reject the panel's list in its entirety, and attempts to block the plan failed.

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