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IMPACT: Panetta pledges to fix substandard schools on military bases

Senate amendment to funding bill requires DOD to report on earlier plan for school repairs

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A deteriorating roof at Clarkmoor Elementary at Fort Lewis, Washington.

Emma Schwartz/iWatch News

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is asking the Pentagon’s senior leadership to examine “every report” of substandard school buildings attended by the children of US military personnel, and to develop blueprints for correcting whatever problems are confirmed.

“Where there are problems,” Panetta said in a statement, “I want a plan in place to correct them.”

An investigation posted June 27 by iWatchNews revealed an array of substandard conditions at many of the 353 schools for military children worldwide. Three in four Defense Department-run schools on military installations are either beyond repair or would require extensive renovation to meet minimum standards for safety, quality, accessibility and design, the iWatchNews probe found. Schools run by public-school systems on Army posts don’t fare much better: 39 percent fail to meet even the military’s own standards, according to a 2010 Army report. 

The Defense Department, Panetta said, “is strongly committed to ensuring that the children of military families receive an excellent education,” and “high quality facilities and instruction are essential … to providing the kind of education they deserve.” He added that the Pentagon “must be and will be fully committed to the troops, their families, and their children.”

Panetta’s comments follow passage of a Senate measure that would require the Defense Department to report on its funding plan for repairs to decrepit and overcrowded schools on military installations. That requirement came in the form of an amendment filed by Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, to the proposed fiscal year 2012 military construction spending bill. Boxer’s amendment, cosponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.),  calls on Panetta to “report to Congress . . . on the status and improvement plan” for all 149 of the Pentagon’s substandard schools, as outlined in a 2009 report to Capitol Hill. The House version of the spending measure has a provision somewhat similar to Boxer’s, but the exact final language will have to be negotiated as part of a conference to reconcile the two versions of the measure.

In remarks on the Senate floor this week, Senator Boxer cited the iWatchNews story and pointed out such “serious problems” as roof leaks, mold, and aging infrastructure at many of the base schools operated by the Pentagon. “Clearly, we need to do something about it,” said Boxer, who, along with 11 of her colleagues, sent a July 18 letter to Panetta about the issue. The original version of Boxer’s amendment would have actually required that DOD fix the schools. But some senators objected that such language would have improperly directed the Pentagon’s spending, according to several sources familiar with the negotiations. The final amendment passed the Senate on July 20 by voice vote.

A Boxer spokesman says the measure, in effect, forces the department to submit a more comprehensive plan than currently exists for renovating and replacing its “poor” and “failing” schools. Boxer’s amendment was meant to address only those schools identified in the 2009 congressional report, and does not address similarly decrepit conditions at base schools operated by local districts across the country. Boxer’s office has requested a Pentagon briefing to discuss the aging inventory of base schools in both of these systems.

In a statement, Boxer said she was “pleased that the Senate has approved a bipartisan amendment, which will help ensure that military children have safe, quality schools that put them on the path to a bright and successful future.”

Pentagon officials note that the department began funneling money into its own substandard schools after a 2008 report to Congress. As reported by the iWatchNews investigation, the Defense Department’s education agency unveiled a plan last August that could take up to seven years to replace or renovate 134 of its 194 schoolhouses — at $3.7 billion. Congress has committed only $484 million for the current fiscal year, enough to repair or replace 10 schools. This week, the Senate passed its version of that fiscal year 2012 military construction spending bill, which includes another $483 million to renovate and replace 13 additional schools.

A Defense Department task force has also been evaluating the 159 military base schools operated by local public systems, as reported by the iWatchNews probe. While the Pentagon initially declined to provide a copy of its assessments for all 159 schools, officials now say that 74 publicly-run base schools have been rated in “poor” or “failing” physical shape — 46 percent of the total —which would cost another $1.5 billion to fix.

Referring to both systems, a Pentagon spokesman acknowledged that they “represent an aging inventory of school facilities,” yet insisted that “none of the schools were or are deemed to be unsafe or unacceptable for use as an educational facility.”

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives defeated an effort to slash $250 million for repairs to substandard base schools run by the local districts; the Senate has not yet acted on funding for those schools. The proposed funding mirrors the $250 million set aside for substandard base schools operated by local districts this fiscal year, which Congress passed in April.

Advocates for military families believe they now have momentum for repairs. Boxer’s amendment, explained Joyce Raezer, of the National Military Family Association, which supported the measure, is “getting the message about the need in the appropriations bill.” While she and other advocates would like Congress to speed up funding for repairs, she doubts such an effort would get anywhere in this current budget climate.

“This amendment,” she concluded, “does put a marker down for next year and lets the DOD know the Senate at least wants to see some progress made.”