Undaunted, Senator still trying to close decrepit schools on military bases

Coburn envisions $1 billion saved – and shifting thousands of students to public school districts

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Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., during a town hall meeting in Oklahoma City.

Sue Ogrocki/AP

The Senate has decided not to take up a proposal that would close rather than repair decrepit Defense Department-run schools on military bases, creating a flood of thousands of students to nearby public school systems.

But the plan’s chief architect, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), is vowing to try again. He estimates potential savings to the Pentagon from closing “unnecessary” schools at more than $1 billion over four years.

Coburn spokeswoman Becky Bernhardt said the senator was “disappointed and frustrated that the Senate, yet again, chose to ignore the chance to achieve real savings in refusing to vote on a common-sense amendment.”

The Defense Department runs about 60 schools on military bases in the U.S., many of which are run-down, too small, and pose health and safety risks to children, as the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News reported in a series, “The Military Children Left Behind.”

Three out of four Pentagon-run schools are beyond repair or require major renovation, the news organization found.

Coburn proposed that instead of spending more than $1 billion on planned renovations – plus an annual $14,000-$16,000 for each student – the Defense Department could transfer $12,000 per student per year to local schools enrolling the students.

“It is no longer clear why the system is still necessary, or why the Defense Department plans to spend $1.2 billion [over the next four years] to rebuild these schools,” said Corburn in a statement on his website.

Many of the schools, Coburn noted, are holdovers from just after World War II, when military parents wanted to send their children to integrated schools; many public schools remained segregated. The only way for military parents to send their children to integrated schools was to build them on base.

The Senate approved a $662 billion defense bill on Dec. 1 without Coburn’s amendment.

A 2010 Fiscal Commission report first suggested closing these schools. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) both supported the plan.

Cash-strapped school districts, meanwhile, are worried about the impact of closing schools on bases. More than 19,000 students would have to be accommodated by public school districts near bases where military schools have been shuttered.

The $12,000 per student per year subsidy to the schools that accept the students might not be enough to cover costs, public school systems say. “It’s an issue that needs to be assessed at the local level whether that particular school district…has the facility capacity, personnel,” said Jocelyn Bissonnette at the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools. “Many school districts are facing fewer dollars. There is a concern about the cost that would be associated with this.”

The 2012 defense construction budget, which has not yet been approved by Congress, would allocate $550 million to repair or replace 15 Defense Department-run schools, six of which are on bases in the U.S. That’s up more than $100 million from the 2011 defense construction budget, which allocated $439 million to repair or replace 10 Defense Department-run schools, six of which are on bases in the U.S.

Nonetheless, as iWatch News has reported, the funding falls well short of the estimated $4 billion needed to repair or replace all the Defense Department-run schools that need work.

Congress also appropriated $250 million earlier this year for upgrades to 12 of the 160 civilian-run schools on military bases. That is an estimated $1 billion short of what is needed to fix all 62 of the 160 public-run schools on bases that are in “poor” or “failing” condition, reported iWatch News.

Geronimo Road Elementary School, in Coburn’s home state of Oklahoma, is one of the failing, public-school-run military base schools. As iWatch News reported, the Fort Sill-based school has termite-infested walls, air conditioning so archaic it drowns out the teachers’ voices, and buckets dotting the chipped floors to catch the rain as soaks through rotting ceiling tiles.

Tens of thousands of students attend schools – some run by the Pentagon, others by public school districts – that are the military itself considers to be failing. In the last ten years, conditions at the schools have worsened, even as parents faced longer deployments.

Despite the military’s promise to provide high-quality education to children of active-duty soldiers, many of these schools even fail to meet Defense Department standards.

The Defense Department declined to comment on the Coburn amendment.