Schools Overrun by Students Affected by Troop Shifts

By Mark Pitsch — June 17, 1992 6 min read

Dozens of school districts serving military installations across the country have seen their enrollments expand by the hundreds during this school year as domestic military realignments and armed-forces reductions in Europe force the relocation of troops and their children.

To deal with the problem, many such districts have overcrowded their existing classrooms or put together makeshift ones, dipped into their reserve funds or borrowed to hire new teachers, and engaged in speculative planning.

Moreover, observers say, the predicament facing districts that experience a tremendous influx of students of military families is expected to grow more severe over the next several years as the services intensify their efforts to reduce their ranks by 25 percent. The problem is expected to outstrip that faced by school districts that lose students as a result of domestic-base closures. (See Education Week, April 29, 1992.)

“We have a saying down here, ‘There is no such animal as a long-range plan,’'' said Robert Edmonson, the administrative assistant to the superintendent of the Killeen (Tex.) Independent School District, one of the most severely affected districts in the nation. “Flexibility is the big word down here.’'

According to the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, a lobbying organization that represents school districts that serve the children of military personnel, as many as 20 school districts around the country have received a large influx of students since last fall.

Students have “sort of trickled in during the course of the school year,’' said John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the association.

School districts hope to persuade federal officials to approve a one-time emergency appropriation to help them cope with the increases. Several moves are afoot here to address the problem.

Mr. Forkenbrock and aides to Senator David L. Boren, Democrat of Oklahoma, agreed last week to pursue the issue in the Senate during discussion of the Department of Defense reauthorization bill.

Financial Impact

With few exceptions, district officials say, the increases are due to military cutbacks in Europe. One exception, the Killeen district, which educates children from nearby Fort Hood, is receiving students whose parents are being transferred from Fort Polk in Louisiana.

The Killeen district, which started the year with about 13,700 military students, received an additional 924 over the course of the school year.

Mr. Edmonson said the additional students forced the district to ask the state for a waiver from the law that limits each classroom to 22 students. Some classes, he said, now hold as many as 30 students.

The district is already using 150 portable buildings for classrooms, he said, as well as a theater stage and “traveling’’ teachers, who do not have classrooms.

It is also building additions on four elementary schools along with one new elementary school that will hold 900 students, and is planning a new intermediate school for 4th and 5th graders.

Total construction costs for those projects are expected to reach $70 million, Mr. Edmonson said, and the district has applied for $9 million in impact-aid construction funds from the federal government. The remainder will be raised through state and local sources, he said.

Killeen’s enrollment woes are going to compound tremendously, however, when no fewer than 3,236 students, and possibly as many as 4,444, arrive from the closing of Fort Polk by the end of the 1993-94 school year.

“Even though we’ve already started building, there is no way we can build that fast to handle that kind of influx,’' Mr. Edmonson said.

Effects Seen Elsewhere

Other school districts are being affected in similar ways:

  • The enrollment of the Hardin County, Ky., public schools, which serve students whose parents are stationed at nearby Fort Knox, jumped by 500 this year as a result of the return of troops from Germany, said Bill Reynolds, the assistant superintendent for student services. About one-third of the school’s enrollment of 13,000 is connected to the military, he said.

One new school already has been built, and the school system is in the process of rearranging its grade structure to meet Kentucky class-size requirements.

  • The Lawton, Okla., district has nearly exhausted its financial reserves to cope with educating 1,322 additional students as of February, a 7.5 percent enrollment increase, according to Ed Hennessee, the assistant superintendent. Of the $1.2 million in added expenses as a result of the influx, $880,000 went for teacher salaries, he said, and an additional $660,000 has been removed from the fiscal year 1993 budget to keep spending down.

Mr. Hennessee said additional students, whose parents live or work at Fort Sill, are expected by the end of August.

“We’re spending what we have to spend,’' he said. “We have to educate the kids on as equal a basis as any other student and provide the teachers with supplies.’'

Federal Intervention Imminent?

In addition to Senator Boren, several other members of the Congress are interested in findings ways to help district’s such as Mr. Hennessee’s.

Representative John P. Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who chairs the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, has had discussions with Representative William H. Natcher, the Kentucky Democrat who chairs the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, about transferring some fiscal 1993 Defense Department dollars to the impact-aid program for distribution among affected districts, according to Mr. Forkenbrock of the federally impacted schools.

An aide to Mr. Natcher confirmed that the two legislators have met, but said that because of language contained in the 1990 Budget Enforcement Act, such a transfer would be considered a domestic expense and therefore would come from the social-services, not the defense, appropriations bill.

Senator Claiborne Pell, Democrat of Rhode Island and the chairman of the Education, Arts, and Humanities Subcommittee, and Representative Patsy T. Mink, Democrat of Hawaii, introduced bills last month that require the Defense Department to fund the portion of the impact-aid program that pays to educate military children. Administration of the program would remain within the Education Department.

An aide to Mr. Pell said that no action on his bill is expected until the impact-aid program is reauthorized next year. Nevertheless, the aide said, “We’ve got a pretty good reaction from everyone but the Department of Defense.’'

Mr. Forkenbrock applauded the spirit of the two bills, but said he still has questions over the implementation of such a funding transfer.

“I have a certain amount of caution as to where this is all leading,’' he said.

Averaging Student Counts

For now, districts can find partial relief from the Education Department. Because impact-aid districts are funded based on a current-year attendance formula, they can compensate for an influx of students by averaging attendance counts taken in October with those at taken at any other time that school year, according to Charles Hansen, who runs the department’s impact-aid program.

The law governing the program does provide for special influx emergencies, Mr. Hansen said, but the Congress has not appropriated any money for that section. Even if it did, he said, the money would not be available for 18 months.

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 1992 edition of Education Week as Schools Overrun by Students Affected by Troop Shifts