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Overcrowded D.O.D. School on Base in Ga. Faces the Possible

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Loss of Its Accreditation By Mark Pitsch

Washington--A Fort Stewart, Ga., school operated by the Department of Defense may lose its accreditation this year because it lacks the money for vital repairs to classrooms and a library-media center.

Although Diamond Elementary School houses nearly twice as many students as it was built to accommodate, no federal construction dollars have flowed to the school since 1988.

In fact, since 1988, no construction funds have gone to the 68 schools located on military bases serving some 37,000 students in eight states and Puerto Rico, according to Hector Nevarez, superintendent of the system.

During the same period, he added, the so-called "Section 6" schools, 3named after the provision of federal law that established them, have identified some $110 million in needed repairs.

President Bush has declined to include construction funds for any dod schools in his fiscal 1992 budget.

"It's not to say we haven't recognized the need" at Fort Stewart, Mr. Nevarez said. Funding, he said, is needed. "It's justifiable," he added. "We just can't do it right now.""

Although only Diamond Elementary faces the loss of accreditation, all of the schools need improvements.

"I'm hoping that with [Operation] Desert Storm now over ... that we can somehow get money for construction projects," Mr. Nevarez said.

In 1987, the Congress withheld military construction dollars for educational purposes because it had asked then-Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger to submit a plan on the feasibility of transferring the governance of base schools to local districts.

After a 1988 rand Corporation study on the issue, the department decided to scrap the transfer plan. Instead, the department planned to submit a budget that included school-construction funds.

The department was unable to do so in time for the fiscal 1990 budget, however, and when planning for fiscal 1991 rolled around, Secretary Richard B. Cheney decided to save money by placing a moratorium on all military construction, Mr. NeHvarez said.

That series of events has left Dia mond Elementary with a facility built in 1962 for 500 students. The school now enrolls 901 pupils.

Many of them study in 12 crowdH ed, dilapidated trailers. Windows on the trailers are covered with foil to prevent heat loss. Carpeting is satu rated by rain. New wall paneling only partially covers the mold cre ated by rain leakage.

Moreover, the school's library-me dia center is 30 percent of the size it should be, according to state standards.

It was this infraction that led the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, a regional accrediting agency, to cite Diamond Elementa ry for violating state standards.

The citation covers the 1990-91 academic year, but Paul Ward, the superintendent for the Fort Stewart military schools, said he will request an extension for the 1991-92 school year to allow the system to develop stopgap improvement measures and to receive the $6.95 million needed for permanent repairs.

"I do not anticipate that we're ac tually going to lose accreditation," Mr. Ward said.

He said he has been assured that dod officials are working to secure the funding, and Mr. Nevarez said the department will not "allow schools to lose their accreditation."

Mr. Nevarez added, however, that the only way the school will receive repair dollars soon is if the depart ment transfers money from its oper ations and maintenance accounts, which is unlikely.

But Representative Lindsay Thomas, a Democrat from Georgia - who is a member of the House Ap propriations Committee and its military construction subcommittee, has lined up behind the Fort Stewart school and asked the deL partment to submit a funding reL quest for the school's repairs.

"When the men and women of the 24th Infantry Division come home from combat in the Middle East and ask me why the government will not give their children a decent school building, then the government bet ter have a different answer than, 'I don't know,"' he said.

If dod officials fail to respond, Mr. Thomas said he will introduce legisla tion authorizing construction money.

Congressional intervention in 1990 provided $7.9 million for the construc tion of a school at Fort Benning, Ga. The accrediting agency had cited he William H. Wilbur Elementary School for violations relating to over crowding, but did not threaten the school with the loss of accreditation because of the federal funding. The school is slated to open in 1993.

Superintendent Ward, who pointed out that he did not ask Mr. Thomas for Congressional assistance in secur ing construction money, hopes inter vention at that level will not scare off dod officials working on the case. "I'm a little nervous about what is happening here with the political initiative because I don't want the officials within the Department of Defense to get defensive," he said. A second elementary school at Fort Stewart was built in 1983 and has no facility problems. The 1,700 students attend on-base schools through the 6th grade and then transfer to local public schools.

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