Seven of the nation’s 24 most dilapidated public schools serving military families are located in California, according to disclosures this week by state officials.
The report is drawn from a survey of military-based public schools throughout the U.S. conducted by the Department of Defense last year that included issues like overcrowded classrooms, badly maintained structures and inadequate facilities as the basis for comparison.
News of the problem among California schools on service bases was brought before the State Allocation Board late Wednesday to respond to an offer from federal officials to provide $200 million for school repairs, if the state would contribute $25 million in matching funds.
Given the state’s current fiscal status, finding that money will not be easy, despite the sense of anxiety and urgency board members expressed upon learning of yet another home front challenge facing military families and parents returning from multiple war deployments
“We now have our veterans coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq, and their kids are going to some of the worst schools in the nation,” board member Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, said. “I’m just really concerned about what we are going to do.”
Like virtually all other public funding sources, money for building and maintaining schools in California has been increasingly scarce since the onset of the recession.
A variety of bond funds for school construction has been exhausted in recent months as a growing list of school building projects has been put on hold because of a lack of state matching funds.
Still, lawmakers in both Sacramento and Washington are unlikely to overlook the issue given the stress and strain on military families. Congress already has taken the unprecedented step of setting aside $500 million for fixing school facilities even though the structures are largely the responsibility of the states or local jurisdictions.
“This was an emergent requirement that came about because the Secretary [of Defense Robert Gates] had a town hall meeting with several military families and the dominant theme of that discussion was the condition of the schools their children attend,” Patrick O’Brien, director of the DOD’s Office of Economic Adjustment, told SAB members at the hearing in Sacramento. “Congress sat up and took notice.”
O’Brien warned the board that further delays could jeopardize the money earmarked for California. He said already about half of the money authorized by Congress has been allocated.
The federal review ranked seven schools in California among the worst 24 nationwide. O’Brien also said, however, that three of those schools were among the bottom 12 as determined by the DOD’s review of 157 of the country’s 160 public schools on military bases.
Details about the specific problems at each of the schools were not made available to the board, which drew some questions. Also problematic was the fact that several of the schools have benefitted from funding drawn from the state’s modernization program over the last 12 years.
“If, for the last 12 years, they’ve gotten modernization money, what happened to it?” queried Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-San Ramon. “I need to know more about what their condition really is; what needs to be done; what was done.”
The schools cited in the DOD report are:
• Sherman E. Burroughs High and Murray Middle School, Sierra Sands Unified School District; located at China Lake Naval Air Station.
• Forbes Elementary (Currently Branch Elementary), Muroc Joint Unified School District: located at Edwards Air Force Base.
• Scandia Elementary, Travis School District: located at Travis Air Force Base.
• Miller Elementary, San Diego Unified School District; located at Naval Base San Diego.
• Mary Fay Pendleton and San Onofre Elementary schools, Fallbrook Union Elementary School District: located at the Marine Corp Base Camp Pendleton.