Cold War’s End Wracks Schools in Base Town

By Mark Pitsch — April 29, 1992 17 min read
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  • $787,675 for the annual payment on a $3.5-million bond issue to build new athletic fields. The city council approved the issue shortly before the announcement that Pease would be closed.

For the educators, parents, and students of this charming port city, the end of the Cold War has meant not only an epochal shift in world geopolitics, but also a drastic educational upheaval.

Over the last three years, about 150 of the local school district’s 600 employees, including 116 teachers, have lost their jobs. The 300 or so teachers who remain are the highest-paid and most senior, so that today the youngest elementary-school teacher in the entire system is 39 years old.

Four elementary schools have been closed, and dozens of students have been reassigned as a result of a controversial redistricting plan. Some of the teachers from the closed schools were able to keep jobs only by unceremoniously “bumping’’ less senior teachers at other schools.

More than 30 high-school courses have been eliminated, including some advanced foreign-language, gifted-and-talented, and advanced-placement classes. The number of sections available in numerous other subjects has decreased, to the point where one senior planning to study science in college was forced to choose between taking advanced mathematics or physics.

Variously described as “devastating,’' “horrendous,’' and “traumatic,’' these and other jolts to the Portsmouth school system are directly attributable to the March 1991 closing of Pease Air Force Base here and the resulting reduction of the student population by more than 35 percent--from nearly 3,800 in 1988-89 to an estimated 2,500 next year.

The cuts would have been even worse if school officials had not been able to rely on a powerful Congressional ally who managed to win additional federal aid for the district under a little-known provision. The Bush Administration opposes continuation of that emergency aid next year, however, and without it Portsmouth could be forced to lay off 27 more teachers and drop at least a dozen high-school courses, including German, journalism, and building trades.

Because Pease is the first of several dozen military bases in the United States slated for closure in the 1990’s, local-government officials and educators across the country consider Portsmouth a harbinger of the impact on education of the Pentagon’s sweeping plans for a scaled-down military.

The base-closing process, which took a major initial step forward in late 1988, has reflected not only easing of world tensions but also a desire to reduce unnecessary spending and make the military more efficient. (See Education Week, Jan. 11, 1989.)

The Defense Department has already named 170 domestic bases that have been slated for closure or realignment, and an additional list of targeted facilities is due out in 1993.

Portsmouth officials say other school systems in their situation can expect frequently to feel as if they are trying to negotiate an obstacle course in the dark. Attempting to anticipate the next hurdle, they caution, will be little more than an exercise in futility.

“We seemed to go from putting out one fire to another for a period of about 18 months,’' said Charles Griffin, a school-board member who became its chairman this year. “We were reacting to events. There was no time to sit down and plan or look to the future or to be proactive.’'

“People had to be laid off, students had to be moved, schools had to be closed, and we just did it,’' he said. “We just did it and got it over with.’'

‘Pretty Grim Here’

Coping with the closure of Pease has been painful for Portsmouth, a southeastern New Hampshire city of about 26,000 residents.

Linked to the Atlantic Ocean by a small stretch of the Piscataqua River, the city was based on a seafaring economy for most of its nearly 370-year history. But with the onset of the Cold War, Portsmouth became economically dependent on the air base, which was built in 1957, and on the nearby Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, where U.S. Navy surface vessels and submarines are overhauled.

Air Force officials estimate that Pease--which had 3,600 uniformed personnel and 1,000 civilian employees--brought in as much as $1 million a day to the local economy.

The city’s rapid growth began in the 1960’s, as a result of the new air base, and peaked in the mid-1980’s, at a time when property values skyrocketed, condominiums and town houses attracted young, affluent professionals, and a tourist trade developed.

But now, both as a result of the Pease closure and New England’s crushing recession, vacancies pepper downtown office buildings, banks and entire shopping malls have closed, and the bottom has dropped out of the real-estate market.

“It’s been pretty grim here,’' said Barbara Smith, who owns the Little Professor Book Center in the heart of downtown.

Moreover, it is not uncommon to find residents who believe the shipyard, too, is being prepared for closing. They point to signs like a recent announcement that 600 shipyard employees would be laid off, as well as a Defense Department proposal last month to move submarine-overhaul work originally committed to the shipyard in 1995 to South Carolina.

Closing of the shipyard, which has 6,400 civilian employees, could prove to be an even more devastating economic blow to Portsmouth than the shutting down of Pease has been.

“At some point you have to say, ‘What do they want from us?’'' said Mayor Eileen Foley. “‘Why are they targeting us? We’re not a bad city.’''

Schools Affected Most

Although the Pease closing has had a tremendous economic impact on the town, many residents here say the shutdown’s effect on the school system has been even more painfully felt.

“The schools were the primary focus in the community,’' said Frank Slover, a school-board member who chaired the board between January 1989, when the Pentagon approvedplans to close Pease, and March 1991, when the base’s flag was lowered.

“There were a lot of concerns about the economy, but the main concern was the amount of money it costs to fund the public-education system here and the amount of money coming into the city as a result of impact aid,’' Mr. Slover added.

The district traditionally had received a payment under the federal impact-aid program to help educate students from families who either lived or worked on the base. During the past two decades, between 900 and 1,150 students in the Portsmouth system were militarily connected.

The payments did not match the actual educational costs of the students, leaving the district with a shortfall of $2.87 million in school year 1989-90. Nevertheless, Portsmouth became dependent on the federal money.

The aid, amounting to $2.48 million during the 1989-90 school year, was used to hire teachers, diversify the high-school curriculum, and maintain larger buildings.

Although the aid represented just 10 percent of the district’s budget, its crucial importance was widely acknowledged. “The feeling in the community is that this money is very important,’' said Superintendent of Schools Nathan Greenberg.

When there were no more federally connected students to educate after the 1990-91 school year, the district faced losing the federal payments.

The Costs of Closing

Moreover, according to a report district officials prepared for U.S. Senator Warren B. Rudman, Republican of New Hampshire, budget costs to the district as a result of the Pease closure have amounted to more than $2 million a year.

For the current school year, officials said, these costs are:

  • $1.175 million to handle increased costs per student. Because layoffs were done on a seniority basis, thus retaining higher-paid veteran employees, per-pupil spending increased by $452.

  • $787,675 for the annual payment on a $3.5-million bond issue to build new athletic fields. The city council approved the issue shortly before the announcement that Pease would be closed.

  • $159,850 to retain vocational, language, and athletics teachers whose jobs will be phased out over a period of years. District officials say these teachers serve students in programs that take three or four years to complete, and eliminating them when some students have not completed the programs would be unfair.

  • $93,860 for unemployment benefits for laid-off employees.

  • $31,000 to maintain one base school in case the district needs to use it in the future.

  • $15,500 to close school buildings.

  • $10,000 for part of a five-year curriculum-implementation plan as a result of the creation of a middle-school during redistricting.

Mr. Rudman--who recently said he would retire from the Senate out of frustration over the inability of the Congress to control federal spending and reduce the budget deficit--successfully used the Portsmouth figures to steer more money to his home state. During a 1990 debate, he persuaded his Senate colleagues to rewrite a rarely used part of the impact-aid law in order to give Portsmouth, and other districts like it in the future, 90 percent of its previous-year payment for each of three years after all military-dependent students have left the district.

Spending Cuts Defeated

Superintendent Greenberg said the payments have allowed the district to make prudent decisions about what parts of the system will be scaled back. Had the payments not come through, he said, the city would have been forced to slash even more educational programs and employees or raise the already high property-tax rate by $2.25 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, to $40.25 per $1,000.

Just short of half of the city’s budget, or $18.5 million in fiscal 1992, goes to the city’s schools.

The Bush Administration opposes continued funding of districts that lose students as a result of base closures, however, and its fiscal 1993 budget proposal does not include such funds, which are known as 3e payments after a section of the impact-aid law. (See related story, page 12.)

In addition to battling for continued federal aid, Portsmouth officials also fought off a 1989 referendum that would have trimmed the education budget by roughly 25 percent and capped per-pupil spending at the 1990 level, with annual 2 percent increases.

Although the referendum was rejected by voters, proponents of the spending curbs continue to argue that the district did not do enough to keep costs down while it was losing students.

“There never really was an attempt to cut down on the overhead costs of the schools,’' said Don Cundiff, a retired Air Force general who was active in the referendum campaign.

But school officials respond that certain overhead costs are fixed and will remain so for a while.

“We are still operating a system with diseconomies of scale,’' said the school district’s business manager, Peter Torrey. “Our electric bills and heating bills at the high school have not gone down because the Pease kids have gone away. And we’re not going to tear down or close a wing.’'

Traumatic for All

While the battle over dollars has been a bureaucratic tangle, the human side of the story concerns the teachers who lost their jobs or were forced to move to unfamiliar schools.

One of those still looking for a permanent job two years after being laid off is Linda Briolat, who had been a teacher in the system for 13 years.

Although Ms. Briolat currently works as a substitute teacher for the Portsmouth system, she and her husband this month were forced to move to a less expensive home because of financial difficulties.

“I’m looking everywhere, but the story is you’re too high on the [reduction-in-force] list or you have too much experience and we don’t want to pay you,’' she said. “It’s not O.K. to be laid off.’'

“I couldn’t function for a month afterward,’' she recalled, referring to the layoffs. “You lose your whole framework for conversation. Your friends are at school, your social life is at school, your kids are in the system.’'

At the school where she used to work, Ms. Briolat added, teachers and parents “felt ownership. Everybody knew everybody else and they looked out for one another.’'

Carol Hollis, the president of the school’s parent-teacher organization, described the situation this way: “It was traumatic for the teachers. It was traumatic for the parents who became friends with the teachers.’'

“For the first time, as a parent, you didn’t have a clue who the teachers were,’' Ms. Hollis continued. “And everyone was scared that we were losing all the good teachers and all we’d have were the older teachers.’'

Indeed, no teachers within the system with less than 15 years of experience were retained in their same jobs.

Debate Over Seniority

Among those losing their jobs was Joanne Grasso, a 14-year veteran who was serving as president of the Association of Portsmouth Teachers at the time she was laid off.

Although it cost her her job, Ms. Grasso defends the use of seniority to determine layoffs. Without using objective criteria to determine who would be laid off, she said, there would have been a mad scramble among teachers to retain their jobs.

“It would’ve been [hundreds of] people walking into the superintendent’s office trying to make deals for themselves,’' she said.

Still, the system’s heavy reliance on seniority as the deciding factor in layoffs has been questioned both by the teachers who lost out as a result and by others.

Michelle Grenier, for example, was a seven-year veteran of the system who lost her job as a physical-education teacher at Wentworth Elementary School.

“It made me fiercely question the validity of the whole institution of seniority,’' Ms. Grenier said. “I felt I was a very good teacher, and on the basis of seniority to lose your job....’'

“I mean, whose interest was kept at heart, the students’ or the teachers’?’' she asked.

Jane Onsaldo, with 14 years of service, was not laid off. But she was reassigned, moving from teaching a 2nd-grade class at Little Harbor Elementary to working with emotionally handicapped children at New Franklin Elementary.

Some of the more experienced teachers do not have “as much excitement or motivation,’' Ms. Onsaldo contended. “There’s a lot of old techniques being used.’'

Similar views were expressed by some high-school students, who complained that they had lost their good, young teachers. Many of those still on the job, said Doug Bolko, the president of the high-school senior class, “are old and their methods are obsolete.’'

The seniority issue could be on the table as Portsmouth teachers and the school board negotiate a new contract.

Mr. Griffin, the school-board president, declined to discuss details of the current negotiations. Although he would like to reduce reliance on seniority, he acknowledged that the city cannot afford the pay raises that it might have to offer in order to persuade the teachers’ union to agree to give up seniority protections.

Meanwhile, Marie Gibson is one of the “older’’ teachers. She had taught at Brackett Elementary on the base between 1965 and 1990. When that school closed, she replaced Little Harbor’s 3rd-grade teacher.

Ms. Gibson said she understands that parents and other Little Harbor teachers remain skeptical of her and a number of other former Brackett teachers.

“A lot of their good friends lost jobs,’' she said. “A school becomes a place with a lot of camaraderie.’'

Tension between the remaining Little Harbor teachers and those coming in from Brackett was high for a while, according to parents and teachers. Although things are settling down, “It’s still us versus them much more than it should be,’' Ms. Hollis said.

Redistricting Tangle

In addition to shuffling and laying off teachers, the school district was forced to close some schools and to institute a redistricting plan to transfer the students who formerly went to those schools.

Two elementary schools on the base, Jones and Brackett, were officially closed after the 1989-90 school year, although Brackett had to stay open until March 1991 and Jones is now being used for special-education classes.

Brackett was reopened after the district, which had expected about 100 militarily connected students for the 1990-91 school year, found out that it would have more than 400 because transferring families were delayed in finding housing at their new bases.

“It’s fair to say we were given times for departures and they were changed,’' said Sue Thoreson, a former school-board member who chaired the redistricting committee. “We were told we’d have a certain number of kids and that changed, so we had to hire teachers on a temporary basis.’'

Within the city, Sherburne Elementary School was closed after 1989-90 and its roughly 120 students were sent to Dondero Elementary.

Students from Wentworth Elementary, which closed after the 1990-91 school year, were sent to Little Harbor. Meanwhile, about 65 Little Harbor students were shifted to a school nearer their neighborhood.

Ms. Thoreson said that deciding which students would be moved was one of the most difficult issues she faced during her eight years on the school board.

‘Terrible Bitterness’

Parents who were upset at the moves did not veil their feelings, Ms. Thoreson recalled, adding that at one meeting she was threatened by a parent. “His manner was such that I wondered if something might happen to my house,’' she said.

“The bitterness that took place was really terrible,’' said Lyn-Del Bryant, the parent-teacher organization’s president for New Franklin Elementary. “We’re supposed to be a community, but the isolation between the three [remaining schools] was really noticeable.’'

Because of the tensions evoked by the extensive transfers, the redistricting committee allowed considerable flexibility in student assignments. Students entering the 4th and 5th grades, for example, were permitted to finish their elementary years at their current schools. In addition, those students’ younger siblings were allowed to attend those schools.

The few parents who petitioned the board to allow their children to attend the school they were familiar with, moreover, had their wish granted.

But many others have had to move, and for them the adjustment has not always been easy.

Teresa Richard’s son, Jason, is in the 3rd grade. After three years at Little Harbor, he was moved to New Franklin for this year.

Jason did not feel comfortable at New Franklin for months, his mother explained.

“He was having some trouble and finally he said, ‘I thought if I gave you enough trouble, you’d send me back to Little Harbor,’'' Ms. Richard said.

“I love New Franklin, but the change was horrendous,’' she added. “I would shoot anybody that tried to switch him again.’'

That will not happen, at least for Jason. But school officials plan to revisit the issue in 1996. “No one felt it was the ideal redistricting,’' said the district’s assistant superintendent, Suzanne Schrader.

Planning To Bounce Back

Despite the hardships forced upon Portsmouth, residents here insist that both the city and the school district can bounce back.

One focus of hopes for an economic resurgence is the former base itself. The Air Force is preparing to hand over nearly 1,800 acres of the base, including the airstrip, to a state-created entity, and city and state officials envision creation of an international airport to take advantage of European markets. Portsmouth also hopes that the future transfer of some of the rest of the base will enable new business, industry, and jobs to be brought in.

“We may end up in a better position in 18 months or two years than we were before the base closed,’' said City Manager Ken Mahony. “The changing markets in Europe, the changing economy are going to give us another bite of the apple.’'

“We are phasing out a defense-driven economy,’' Mr. Mahony continued. “We’re going to bring [businesses] in and make an economy work that is driven by skills and needs rather than by some unseen threat.’'

Meanwhile, Mr. Mahony and Superintendent Greenberg have been working to determine how the school system can help meet the needs of businesses considering locating here, including hospitals, insurance companies, computer-research firms, satellite-communication enterprises, and bioengineering companies.

“The world is changing so rapidly the key thing for us is to continue to give the kids the ability to learn,’' Mr. Greenberg said. “The school is part and parcel of the community, so the community should be a classroom.’'

Added Mr. Torrey: “One of the things to economic recovery is to prove to people that we have a viable workforce and a viable education system to create that workforce.’'

The district also is working on developing a partnership with New Hampshire Technical College to facilitate adult education. Classes would take place in Portsmouth High School, where numerous classrooms are going unused or have been turned into special study areas.

The University of New Hampshire is offering adult-education classes on the base and is exploring the use of the Brackett school.

Meanwhile, district officials, parents, teachers, and citizens are taking a look at the makeup of the district, its organizational structure, staff development, teacher and student evaluations, and school-community relations, in an effort to create a “system for the 21st century.’'

With the closure of Pease more than a year old, district officials say that although there are lingering effects, they know what those effects are and how to handle them.

Now, they say, for the first time in several years, the district has some breathing room and time to plan for the future.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Cold War’s End Wracks Schools in Base Town


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