Improved base housing puts pressure on public schools

Construction: As military families migrate to better quarters at Fort Meade and elsewhere, local authorities strain to educate an influx of children.

December 12, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Army wife Christine Talbert was speechless when she first visited her family's new living quarters at Fort Meade in September.

As her three young sons eagerly explored the spacious four-bedroom house, built under the military's most ambitious housing program in a half-century, Talbert simply smiled. To her, the new home meant leaving behind a cramped kitchen and moldy bathroom.

"I love it all because we have so much space," Talbert, whose husband is a major at the Army post in Anne Arundel County, says now. "It's made [us] a lot happier."

FOR THE RECORD - An article Dec. 12 about military housing and its effect on local schools misspelled the last name of Robert C. Leib, a government liaison to the Anne Arundel County public schools. The Sun regrets the error.

But as the housing program expands nationwide, it is triggering concern -- and a severe financial pinch -- in some communities.

As tens of thousands of homes are built across the country, more families are choosing to live on military bases and posts. That has strained public school districts from Maryland to Texas and Colorado, leaving them scrambling to find space for the additional students.

Fort Meade alone expects 720 more school-age children when new housing is completed in 2008. While Anne Arundel officials make plans for a new elementary school near the post to handle the overflow, they warn that long-awaited school repairs could be delayed elsewhere.

Other districts have had to confront the problem already.

In Fort Carson, Colo., school officials have forgone repairs to a decrepit middle school and squeezed teacher salaries to find money for a new 850-seat elementary school. And in Killeen, Texas, voters raised property taxes to pave the way for three new schools at a cost of $35 million at Fort Hood, the nation's largest active-duty installation.

"It's just a tremendous burden," says Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens.

"If we go forward, it's going to have an impact somewhere else. We can't do it all."

Nationally, few question the need to improve the country's 275,000 military homes, many more than 50 years old, with leaky roofs, faulty plumbing and other problems. Faced with such conditions and a shortage of homes, most service members have chosen to live in nearby communities rather than on a base. The multibillion-dollar housing program promises larger, more modern homes at more than 80 Army, Navy and Air Force bases.

But at a time when local governments face serious budget problems, the program is spreading anxiety among school officials ill-equipped to cope with sharp increases or shifts in school enrollments.

And resentment is brewing in Anne Arundel and other places where the local government normally has the authority to limit residential development in neighborhoods where schools are full. In Anne Arundel, for example, nearly half of the district's feeder systems are closed to new home construction.

"Every military community is going to be affected in this way between now and 2007," says John F. Deegan, president of the Military Impacted Schools Association. "If a school system isn't aware of what's going on in their military base, they're asleep."

Military officials say they hope that local communities will consider the improved housing a plus. And they argue that, in most cases, military housing does not cause an overall school population to swell.

"Most of these folks are [from] surrounding communities," says Deputy Assistant Army Secretary William Armbruster. "It is a realigning, or a rearranging."

The officials also point out that school districts get federal aid to help educate the children of military families. School authorities counter that such aid -- $3 million annually in Anne Arundel -- does not cover the costs of educating students, let alone the heavy price of school construction.

For its part, the U.S. Department of Education -- which pays millions in impact aid each year -- is staying out of the fray.

That leaves many school systems to fend for themselves.

Repairs have to wait

At Fort Carson, the children of soldiers moving into new homes are quickly filling up Patriot Elementary, a new school with vast, green-tinted windows that bathe hallways in sunlight and offer sweeping views of the Rocky Mountains.

Much of the money used to build Patriot was diverted from needed repairs at nearby Carson Middle School, a 1950s-era building with chronic flooding problems, a faulty heating system and windowless halls.

When Army wife Theresa Piscal first toured Fort Carson's only middle school three years ago, she wept. Seeing broken lockers and primitive science labs, she felt that her child would be at a disadvantage.

Although she lobbied for a better building, officials put off major renovations. Piscal now knows why: The 5,500-student district was saving money to prepare for an influx of elementary school pupils.

In October, builders finished the last of 841 new homes at Fort Carson, a post 6,000 feet above sea level where new soldiers get a month of light duty to adjust to the thin air.

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