Construction Poses Extra Burden for Impact-Aid Schools
LeMay Elementary School boasts top-notch education programs and an immaculate, recently renovated facility for the children of the military personnel stationed here at Offutt Air Force Base.
But its classrooms are filled to capacity. And Principal Michael Smith says his toughest job is having to turn away weary families who have just moved into the base housing that surrounds the school. He tells them their children will have to be bused to off-base schools instead.
The 9,300-student Bellevue district, which includes schools both on and off the air base, is now rushing to expand LeMay so its 1,500 students from military families can attend classes close to home there and at its two other on-base elementary schools.
"This addition, we should have put on five, six, seven years ago," Mr. Smith said recently, while walking through a new wing of classrooms added to the 35-year-old building. "We've had to bus 70 students each year."
The district couldn't build the new classrooms, though, until its federal impact-aid payments arrived.
Many districts nationally have problems finding funding to build and renovate their facilities.
But school construction puts impact-aid districts--particularly those, like Bellevue, with high numbers of students from federal properties--at the mercy of their federal allocations. Because they have little or no tax base, such districts often are unable to raise revenue through bonds or to take out loans for building projects.
"There is no way, if you want to do a major construction or renovation, that you can do so under the current system," said John F. Deegan, the superintendent of schools in Bellevue.
A recently introduced impact-aid bill now in Congress would authorize $50 million in new, matching grants for school construction and renovation projects. The bill, S 897, would restore and modify a program that budget-minded appropriators cut in 1994.
Before then, the impact-aid program included money specifically for school construction. But it drew criticism because members of Congress sometimes earmarked its funding for their home districts, leaving none for other schools receiving impact aid.
Today, such support would greatly benefit districts such as Bellevue, which have some tax base but not enough to sustain major bond issues. And, as Mr. Deegan pointed out, bond questions can be unpopular in such communities because permanent residents are hesitant to raise their own taxes to pay for services for transient military families.
The tax base here in Bellevue consists mainly of fast-food restaurants and discount stores and generates about $12 million of the district's $54 million annual budget. The rest comes from state money and more than $12 million in federal impact aid.
Quality of Life
No one ever said the military life is without its challenges.
At Offutt, families often move in and out of clapboard duplexes that date to the early 1960s, and many of the students have at least one parent stationed abroad. Because of Offutt's designation as a "reconnaissance" base, its forces are often the first in and last out during a mission. On a recent cloudy day here, nearly every plane had been deployed to Yugoslavia or Saudi Arabia, or to help tornado victims in Oklahoma.
With so much to contend with, keeping good schools and facilities is important to retaining military personnel, said Air Force Lt. Col. John Bowley, a deputy support-group commander and a member of the Bellevue school board.
"We need good schools to attract troops," he said. "And one of the first things people tell you when you get an assignment to [Offutt] is, 'They have a great school system.' "
Peter Sarpy Elementary School--also at Offutt--is proud of its recently renovated classrooms and a brand-new computer lab. School officials are now working to get the 504 students their own e-mail accounts.
"We want to get to the point where they can e-mail their parents when they are deployed," said Mary Busch, Bellevue's director of elementary education.
The quality of facilities varies widely among impact-aid districts, with Bellevue falling on the more fortunate end, said John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools. In other districts, some schools are made up entirely of portable classrooms, he said, while others have decaying buildings that need to be replaced.
Lt. Col. Bowley said that, through his frequent transfers and travels to other bases, he has seen some districts with so many portables and aging facilities that they more closely resembled prison camps than schools.
"Our troops are in Bosnia, and those are the kinds of schools their kids are in," he said.
Vol. 18, Issue 38, Page 21