09.21.11

Pentagon $1B Short on School Fixes

A Pentagon official says the department doesn’t have enough money for the repairs needed at military base schools a Newsweek probe identified as being in poor shape.

Emma Schwartz is a reporter with the Center for Public Integrity's iWatch News, one of the nation’s oldest nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative journalism newsrooms, which partnered with Newsweek on an investigation into crumbling classrooms on military bases.

A top Pentagon official acknowledges that the Department of Defense is more than $1 billion short of what’s needed to repair decrepit public schools on military bases that were the subject of a recent investigation by Newsweek and iWatch News.

The official, Jo Ann Rooney, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said in an interview with iWatch News that the Pentagon will be able to start renovating or replacing only about a dozen of the public schools on bases with the $250 million that Congress appropriated this year for the upgrades. A recent Pentagon report, however, found that about 62 of the 160 civilian-run schools are in “poor” or “failing” condition.

“There is a lot of work that needs to be done. Two hundred and fifty million dollars will not cover it,” Rooney said. “Depending on whether there is additional money coming forward, I can’t predict when those next group of schools would actually be addressed.”

An investigation by Newsweek and iWatch News in June found that many of the schools attended by children of military personnel are in poor shape. Where military children go to school depends on circumstances often beyond families’ control. More than 500,000 children, the largest proportion, live off base and attend local schools in urban or suburban communities that often have significantly more resources.

Some schools will have to wait—and hope—for an additional congressional appropriation.

But families who live on military installations—for economic, career, or security reasons—send their children to one of 194 base schools operated by the Pentagon around the world, or 160 base schools in the U.S. operated by local school districts.

Rooney’s sober assessment has to do with those base schools operated by local districts, which are attended by about 150,000 students. Funding repairs for these schools is especially complex. For one thing, the Pentagon can't use its own funds for civilian schools on military bases and must obtain a special congressional appropriation. These schools also are required to cover 20 percent of the repair bill themselves.

But school districts also frequently have trouble raising money for construction work on base schools through new local taxes or bonds because military families often don’t vote or pay taxes in their communities. If districts cannot meet the 20 percent requirement, the Pentagon will sometimes step in to help. If that happens, though, fewer schools on the list will get funding for repairs this year.

The districts with schools that have the greatest needs will meet next month with Pentagon officials from the Office of Economic Adjustment, which is overseeing the process. Three school districts face an additional challenge of having two schools in the top 12 in need of repair: those at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California, Fort Sill in Oklahoma, and Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

Some of those schools will most likely have to wait—and hope—for an additional congressional appropriation.

“The big issue on future congressional appropriations is the larger deficit discussion,” said Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Families Association. “If everything is on the table, and there are many folks on the Hill who do not believe school construction is a federal responsibility, then getting more could be problematic.”

John Forkenbrock, of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, said there has been discussion on the House side about adding another $250 million for school construction to this year’s appropriation, but no one knows whether the funding will ultimately go through.

“There is support there, but it’s just a matter of whether the budget will allow,” Forkenbrock said. “Right now it’s still kind of a question mark.”

The 194 schools that are actually run by the Pentagon have their own problems. The Newsweek and iWatch News investigation found that three in four Pentagon-run schools are either beyond repair or would require extensive renovation to meet minimum standards. But the Pentagon has already made plans to renovate or replace 134 of those schools with the worst problems over the next five years.

So far 28 projects at those schools are underway, and Rooney said the Pentagon will be able to find the money to cover them all.

But however long it takes, Rooney said, getting funding for all schools on military bases “is not something that’s going to be dropped. We want to make sure that the children of our military families are taken care of and given the best opportunities for education.”