E.D. Ponders Effect of Base Closings on Impact-Aid Program
WASHINGTON--While Portsmouth, N.H., educators had to contend with major uncertainties over the effects of the closing of their local military base, U.S. Education Department officials may be facing even bigger questions about how upcoming base closures will affect the impact-aid program and the school districts that have come to depend on it.
"I know we've got a lineup for closings, but we don't know when, at what rate, and who else might move in,'' said Charles Hansen, who directs the department's office of impact aid. "I'd like it to be more manageable, but it's not.''
So far, it has not been difficult for Mr. Hansen's office to deal with base closings and the section of the impact-aid law that provides transitional aid to districts that lose their military-dependent students. Only two districts have so far received aid under section 3e of the law: Portsmouth, which got $1.8 million in 1992, and Clark County, Ky., which received just $1,200.
Over the coming years, however, the impact-aid office expects to be swamped with requests for extra help from districts that now educate children of military families. While the 1991 closing of Pease Air Force Base--which hit the Portsmouth schools hard--has highlighted some universal issues, Mr. Hansen observed, each district will be affected differently.
"These things are very idiosyncratic, very hard to predict,'' he said.
Trying To Get a Fix
Even the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, which represents districts that get impact aid, has been having difficulty figuring out when certain districts will be affected by impending base closures, according to John Forkenbrock, the group's executive director.
Mr. Forkenbrock said he has been surveying districts to find out what they have been hearing from the Defense Department.
"We're trying to get a fix, draw a bead on these districts that are going to see an impact on the next school year,'' he said. But the Department of Defense "just doesn't seem to have any accurate information going to one central location.''
Mr. Forkenbrock said he will use the information he collects to make a recommendation to the Congress on how much 3e money should be provided in fiscal 1993. Up to $10 million may be needed, he said.
That figure may eventually rise to $30 million when the base closures reach their peak in about three years, Mr. Hansen noted.
The Bush Administration opposes making such payments, however, and did not include a 3e-spending proposal in its budget.
Under current law, districts that lose their military-dependent students receive 90 percent of their previous year's allotment in each of three years. Thus, in the third year, a district would get 73 percent of the amount it had received when it had such students.
The Administration instead favors a system under which districts losing students as a result of a base closure would receive a payment equal to 100 percent of the previous year's funding, but only for one year.
Under the current system, Mr. Hansen argued, "In the fourth year, it's a lot of money for kids that haven't been there in four years.''
Administration officials believe impact-aid payments should follow the students to the districts where their military parents have been transferred.
Prior-Year Data Urged
Mr. Hansen said the Administration's proposal would work if the impact-aid program goes from using current-year to prior-year data to calculate aid awards. That would allow for smoother transitions in districts where bases are closing, he said.
Although the Congress is considering a shift to prior-year data, it is unclear whether it will implement the change in an appropriations bill this year, or wait to consider the issue when the program is reauthorized next year.
Nevertheless, one year of payments is not enough to sustain a formerly impacted district, said Superintendent Nathan Greenberg of the Portsmouth schools. In fact, he said, three years may be too short.
"What it sounds like is, if you're trying to be fiscally and educationally prudent, you're being punished for it,'' Mr. Greenberg said. "How can we not drop the budget when we lose 1,000 kids? If we didn't [reduce the budget] there'd be a lot of school-board and city-council bodies hanging from the lampposts.''
No matter how the debate over section 3e is resolved, districts facing a nearby closure will be forced to address several other issues.
Mr. Hansen said the criteria that will determine how a district is affected will include:
- The amount of state funding. Since New Hampshire provides less state aid to schools than other states do, Portsmouth is almost entirely dependent on federal aid and local taxes. Districts getting more state funding will not be as reliant on federal aid.
- Whether the district is dependent or independent of its local government. Portsmouth is a dependent district, meaning that its funding comes through the city. That could make it easier to raise property taxes to make up a funding shortfall if federal aid is eliminated.
- The speed of base closure.
- The percentage of total enrollment represented by military-dependent students.
Some districts are already preparing for a nearby closing.
For example, the closure of Loring Air Force Base in Maine in 1994 will reduce the student population of the Limestone schools from more than 1,800 to fewer than 300, explained Superintendent Bernard F. Ryder.
In determining what to do with the remaining students, Mr. Ryder said, the Limestone school board must determine whether it wants to continue educating local students under the existing system, form a new district with nearby townships, or pay to send its students to other districts.
Mr. Ryder said he is planning to offer three options to attract outside students and keep the district alive: Limestone could create a public boarding school; join with the Coalition of Essential Schools, a national school-reform network; or create an international agriculture school.