How Can Schools Cope with Base Re-Alignments?

By Del Stover

When the Pentagon announced a major expansion of Fort Benning, Ga., two and a half years ago, Muscogee County school officials went on red alert. An invasion was coming.  With the military base’s expansion expected to bring as many as 45,000 new residents to the region, the school system was looking at the arrival of at least 8,000 new students within five years.

Since then, school officials have been scurrying. They’ve met with military leaders to determine exactly when these new families will arrive, and they’ve worked with county planners to anticipate where new housing will be built. They’ve looked for likely sites for new schools, and they’ve lobbied lawmakers to help the district cope with the daunting financial demands of adding so many new students in so little time.

“We’ll probably need at least three or four new schools -- that’s still to be determined -- at a cost of about $50 million,” says Deputy Superintendent Robin Pennock. “We have engaged in very detailed planning ... but it can be a little overwhelming.”

Others wish they had such problems. In Wheatland, Calif., Superintendent Debra Pearson is confronted by the repercussions of cutbacks at nearby Beale Air Force Base. The district once operated three schools on base, but over the years, more than 850 military housing units have been shut down as personnel transferred elsewhere, and the loss of families has led to a slump in enrollment and budget cutbacks that forced the closing of a school three years ago.

“It’s been very disruptive,” says Pearson, adding that the cutbacks upset parents and strained relations with the teachers’ union. “We’ve had to do layoffs and rely on attrition [to cut back staff]. hen I first arrived in this district, we had 100 teachers. We’re down to 70 right now.”

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