Schools Worry Over Military Base Closings
Pentagon Proposal Isn’t Final, but Some Districts Face Big Loss of Students
The Pentagon’s proposal to close or downsize dozens of military facilities nationwide has school districts facing the loss of federal impact aid and the military populations they have embraced over the years.
“This would be a tremendous loss,” Ann E. Shortt, the superintendent of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska, school district, said of the proposal to radically downsize Eielson Air Force Base, where the district has three schools.
The district’s enrollment of about 14,500 students would decline by about 3,000 if the base some 23 miles south of the city of Fairbanks closes. The district stands to lose up to $10 million in federal impact aid and reduced enrollment-based state funding from its overall $135 million annual budget.
The base students “bring so much, and it’s wonderful,” Ms. Shortt said last week. “These students have lived all over the world.”
U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said in announcing the base-realignment and -closure proposal on May 13 that it would result in a savings of up to $48.8 billion over 20 years. Under the Pentagon’s proposal, 33 major bases or facilities would close and 29 would realign, shifting their resources to other military facilities around the country.
The Base Realignment and Closure Commission, a nine-member independent panel appointed by President Bush and Congress, will study the Pentagon’s recommendations and make a final proposal this coming fall to the president, who then forwards the report to Congress for a yes or no vote. This is the fifth round of base closures and realignments since 1988, and historically, the commission has adopted 85 percent of the Department of Defense’s recommendations.
School districts that enroll students whose parents live or work on a military base receive a federal payment instead of, or in addition to, the money they would receive from local property taxes. The payment for fiscal 2005 is up to $3,920 for a child who lives on a military base, and up to $784 for a child who does not live on a base, said John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, in Washington.
School officials in military communities say they have worked hard to absorb military life into their schools’ culture, such as by accommodating children who arrive mid-school year and seeking out military parents to serve as volunteers.
James E. Mitchell, the superintendent of the 5,700-student Groton, Conn., school district, said the district would lose almost 2,000 children if, as the Pentagon proposes, the Naval Submarine Base New London were closed and its military families relocated. Reductions in federal impact aid and state funding would result in a loss of $6 million to $7 million out of the district’s $65 million annual budget.
“That would be a significant impact in our district,” Mr. Mitchell said. “Kids, who don’t vote, is where this impact will be felt.”
The Douglas district in southwestern South Dakota, which serves Ellsworth Air Force Base, also faces a drastic change. Closure of the B-1 Bomber base, as the Pentagon proposes, would cut the 2,550-student district’s enrollment in half, removing some 1,200 students of military families, said Superintendent Joseph Schmitz. That doesn’t count nonmilitary families who would likely move because of a decline in the community’s military-fueled economy.
The district’s $17.3 million annual budget includes the receipt of $7 million in federal impact aid. But the district would also lose more than $5 million in state formula-funding for those students.
But the Pentagon’s proposal to close Ellsworth, while hard to swallow, was not a shock, Mr. Schmitz said.
“In 1995 we were very close to being closed, and from that date on, I had a cautious eye toward BRAC 2005—and have planned for it,” he said.
Not every district with a military connection would lose large numbers of students under the proposal. But school officials say the closures and realignments would be felt in other ways.
Michael H. Graner, the superintendent of the Ledyard, Conn., public schools, said his district would also be affected by the closure of the New London submarine base, but not to the extent of nearby Groton.
About 370 children from military families are part of the 3,100-student district. The district receives federal impact aid of about $300,000 in an overall $25.5 million annual budget.
“That’s enough to make a difference,” Mr. Graner said.
But, he added, “When I think about the loss of the sub base, I think about the people capital. That is very unfortunate.” For example, the base commander was the chairman of a school district building committee that supervised a $6 million addition to Ledyard’s high school, Mr. Graner said.
In Pascagoula, Miss., only 50 or 60 students would be lost directly from the departure of military families at Pascagoula Naval Base, which is proposed for closure. But Debbie Anglin, the 7,400-student Pascagoula district’s communications director, said the schools there reap benefits from the high level of volunteerism the district receives from base employees.
“We have ships that adopt a particular school; whatever that school’s needs are, they volunteer,” she said, noting that Navy volunteers have built decks for outdoor classrooms, helped run field day activities, and proctored the administration of the state academic test.
“What we’re going to lose in volunteer hours—that’s priceless,” she said.
John F. Deegan, the executive director of the Military Impacted Schools Association suggested that superintendents start working on contingency plans now, even though the closure list is not final. His organization is lobbying Congress to approve language that would get federal impact aid more quickly to schools that see more than a 250-student enrollment swing in a school year because of military base closures and realignments. Currently, it takes at least one school year for the funding to get to the schools.
“If you’re going to have a big loss or a big gain, you can’t wait for a year,” said Mr. Deegan, who is also the superintendent of the 9,200-student Bellevue, Neb., school district, which serves Offutt Air Force Base. The Pentagon proposal would have a minor impact on Offutt, which would lose about 100 civilian employees.
Mr. Deegan also suggested that superintendents start having conversations with base leaders now about likely enrollment gains or losses.
“I would make sure I would be out there at the base, saying, ‘How many kids, and when?’ ” he said.
G.C. Ross, the interim superintendent of the Clovis, N.M., school district, has already developed tentative plans in case nearby Cannon Air Force Base, which is on the proposed closure list, does indeed shut down. About 1,200 of the district’s 8,000 students come from base families.
Mr. Ross said he believes the district can withstand the loss of students without having to shutter facilities. An elementary school a few miles from the base that enrolls almost all military children could be the site of an alternative high school program, he said.
“We’re going to work hard and try and get off that list,” Mr. Ross said. But, he added, “We’ll make the best of it, whichever way it goes.”
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