Numerous school districts located near military bases in the country have experienced significant increases in their student enrollments this academic year. This is due to realignments and reductions in the armed forces, which have resulted in the relocation of troops and their children. To address this problem, many of these districts have resorted to overcrowding existing classrooms or setting up temporary ones. They have also tapped into their reserve funds or borrowed money to hire new teachers and engaged in speculative planning. Experts predict that the predicament faced by districts dealing with a surge of students from military families will worsen in the coming years as the military intensifies its efforts to downsize by 25 percent. This problem is expected to surpass the challenges faced by school districts that lose students due to domestic base closures.
Robert Edmonson, the administrative assistant to the superintendent of Killeen Independent School District in Texas, one of the hardest-hit districts, emphasized the need for flexibility when dealing with this issue. He stated that long-term planning is impractical in such circumstances. According to the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, at least 20 school districts across the country have experienced a significant increase in student enrollments since the past fall. John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the association, noted that students have been gradually enrolling throughout the school year.
The affected school districts hope to secure emergency funding from federal officials to assist them in managing the influx of students. Efforts are underway to address this problem, with John Forkenbrock and aides to Senator David L. Boren of Oklahoma committing to raise the issue during discussions on the Department of Defense reauthorization bill in the Senate.
The majority of district officials attribute the increase in enrollments to military cutbacks in Europe. One exception is the Killeen district, which is receiving students whose parents are being transferred from Fort Polk in Louisiana. The district began the year with approximately 13,700 military students and saw an additional 924 enroll during the school year. As a result, the district had to seek a waiver from the state’s law that limits class sizes to 22 students. Some classes now exceed this limit, accommodating up to 30 students. The district is utilizing 150 portable buildings as classrooms, along with utilizing a theater stage and employing "traveling" teachers who do not have traditional classrooms. Construction is also underway to expand four elementary schools and build a new elementary school to accommodate 900 students. Further plans involve the construction of a new intermediate school for 4th and 5th graders. The total cost of these projects is estimated at $70 million, with a request for $9 million in construction funds from the federal government. The district plans to raise the remaining funds through state and local sources. However, Killeen’s enrollment challenges are set to increase significantly when a minimum of 3,236 students, and potentially up to 4,444, arrive as a result of the closure of Fort Polk by the end of the 1993-94 school year. Mr. Edmonson expressed concerns about the capacity of the district to build schools fast enough to accommodate such a large influx.
Similar effects are observed in other school districts. The public schools in Hardin County, Kentucky, which serve students whose parents are stationed at Fort Knox, experienced a jump of 500 students this year due to the return of troops from Germany. Approximately one-third of the school’s enrollment of 13,000 is linked to the military. To manage this increase, a new school has already been constructed, and the school system is adjusting its grade structure to comply with class-size requirements in Kentucky. In the Lawton district in Oklahoma, nearly all of its financial reserves have been depleted to facilitate the education of an additional 1,322 students as of February, marking a 7.5 percent increase in enrollment. A significant portion of the added expenses was allocated to teacher salaries, and further budget adjustments have been made to manage spending. More students, whose parents are affiliated with Fort Sill, are expected to enroll by the end of August.
Is Federal Intervention Approaching?
Besides Senator Boren, numerous other members of Congress are interested in finding ways to assist districts like Mr. Hennessee’s. Representative John P. Murtha, the Democrat from Pennsylvania who chairs the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, has had discussions with Representative William H. Natcher, the Democrat from Kentucky who chairs the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee, regarding the allocation of some fiscal 1993 Defense Department funds to the impact-aid program for distribution among affected districts, as stated by Mr. Forkenbrock from the federally impacted schools. An aide to Mr. Natcher confirmed that the two legislators have met, but pointed out that due to the language in the 1990 Budget Enforcement Act, such a transfer would be considered a domestic expense and therefore funded from the social-services appropriations bill, not the defense bill. Senator Claiborne Pell, a Democrat from Rhode Island and the chairman of the Education, Arts, and Humanities Subcommittee, along with Representative Patsy T. Mink, a Democrat from Hawaii, recently introduced bills that would require the Defense Department to finance the portion of the impact-aid program that covers the education of military children. However, the administration of the program would still fall under the jurisdiction of the Education Department. An aide to Mr. Pell stated that no action is expected on his bill until the impact-aid program is reauthorized next year. Nonetheless, the aide mentioned, "We’ve received positive feedback from everyone except for the Department of Defense."
While Mr. Forkenbrock appreciates the intention behind the two bills, he still has concerns about the implementation of such a funding transfer. "I am somewhat cautious about where all of this is heading," he admitted.
Averaging Student Numbers
At present, districts can find partial relief from the Education Department. Since impact-aid districts receive funding based on a current-year attendance formula, they can offset an increase in student enrollment by averaging attendance counts taken in October with counts taken at any other time during the school year, according to Charles Hansen, who oversees the department’s impact-aid program. Mr. Hansen mentioned that the law governing the program does account for special cases of sudden influx of students, but Congress has not allocated any funds for that particular provision. Even if it did, he noted that the money would not be accessible for another 18 months.