Danger Below?

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Attempts to raise a $40 million bond to build two new schools off the base two years ago went nowhere.

Like a few remaining New England towns, Bourne is still made up of a collection of seven villages with names like Cataumet, Sagamore, and Buzzards Bay. Each seaside community has its own individual personality, which sometimes makes it a challenge to reach consensus.

Especially when the subject is money.

Though it's home to some of the wealthiest Americans in the summer months, Bourne's year-round population of 16,000 is mostly working-class. Residents work in the retail shops and restaurants that drive the tourist industry. They farm the cranberry bogs and work the fishing boats. Many Bourne residents are retirees living on fixed incomes.

Patti Parker, the president of Bourne's PTA and the mother of a 5th grader at Stone Middle School, has spent several years campaigning to raise money for an off-base middle school. She and other parents have organized meetings to lobby residents, and they have handed out fliers at libraries and post offices.

They argue that a new school would yield educational, as well as environmental, benefits. The current base facilities are military designs that weren't built to accommodate modern education reform ideas, Parker says.

And, she adds, with Campbell closed, the remaining schools are also cramped. Some 7th grade classes at Lyle Middle School are now held in a converted shower room with tile walls, and music classes are taught on a narrow strip of stage between the auditorium and the cafeteria.

Despite those arguments, attempts to raise a $40 million bond to build two new schools off the base two years ago went nowhere. And last summer, when the town leaders put forward a $15 million proposal to build one new school, that too was defeated.

"It was strictly a financial issue," says Haydon Coggeshall, one of Bourne's three selectmen, who voted for the measure. "People felt we didn't need [a new school], and just said fix up the schools that they have," he says.

Though he supports relieving the overcrowding, Coggeshall doesn't think there's a health threat on the base.

"I have two kids out there, and in reality there's no problem. There are bases far worse than this one," he says.

The battle to move the schools has already claimed one casualty: Bourne's superintendent.

Federal and local decisions have presented roadblocks to relocate the three schools.

"I'm ready for a change, and there are a number of people who are ready to have someone new," John O'Brien, Bourne's superintendent, said last month. He plans to leave at the end of this year, his 10th as head of the 2,500-student district.

Overall, Bourne students perform relatively well academically, O'Brien says. On a recent state test, 98 percent of 3rd graders passed or excelled in reading. Parents often praise the quality and dedication of the teaching staff. But, O'Brien says, "when you try to build a school and that fails, you get associated with that."

Coggeshall says the town may have been reluctant to release local funds because the federal government hasn't fulfilled its obligations to Bourne.

Under the federal impact-aid program, the town of Bourne is entitled to reimbursement for educating the children of military personnel since the military facility operates tax-free. Today, military-dependent children make up about 14 percent of the student body in Bourne. At one point, about half of the children in the Bourne schools had parents in the military. According to O'Brien, Congress has failed to fully reimburse Bourne for years, and the town is owed more than $10 million for educating military children over the past 12 years.

Last month, parents and teachers sent Congress a stack of 130 letters written by children asking lawmakers for money to move them to a safer place. McAra, whose daughter Lindy attends the Stone School, says such tactics are unfortunately necessary to get people's attention. "There's nobody overseeing the safety of the schools, and there's no ongoing safety net for families," she says.

"Here you have a community that is dealing with financial constraints at all levels of government," says Mark Forest, an aide to U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., who has been lobbying for the funds. "The people of Bourne, Massachusetts, have been carrying the weight, and the feds need to ante up," he says.

The Bourne school board and the selectmen are expected to present a two-part proposal soon to their representatives in Washington to urge Congress to reimburse the town.

One national expert on impact aid says that Bourne's first pitch to win $10 million in back payments won't get far in Congress.

While they wait for Congress to act, some in Bourne are continuing to push for more environmental research.

"They can get in line with almost every other district in the country who says [the federal government] owes them back payments," says John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, which is based in Washington. Forkenbrock estimates that 1,450 districts are owed about $2 billion under the impact-aid program because Congress hasn't fully funded the program since the late 1960s.

Bourne's second proposal is a little more unusual. It urges the community's representatives in Washington to lobby for a $10 million payment for the Campbell School. The town leaders say federal officials sold them the school with the understanding that it would be habitable, and the property is now condemned.

Forkenbrock is more hopeful about this appeal.

"The federal government is reneging on an obvious responsibility to these kids," he says. "Now that they find themselves with a lemon in the garage [the district] can make a strong case that the feds should get them a facility they can use."

While they wait for Congress to act, some in Bourne are continuing to push for more environmental research.

The Bourne school board is expected to vote soon on a plan to mail health-screening questionnaires to all parents with children in the Bourne public schools. The survey, the beginning of a longitudinal study by the ATSDR, will ask parents about their families' health and whether they believe they or their children have been exposed to health hazards in their homes or at school.

But Wagner of the toxic-substances agency, one of the study's researchers, cautions local residents that this is only a first step toward finding out whether environmental hazards have or could trigger illness among Bourne residents.

"There may be an answer," she says, "but it's not going to be tomorrow."

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