Schools on military bases struggle with maintenance

Schools at 10 military bases in California are among top third the Pentagon says are most in need of repair

Water leaks stain the ceiling of Irving L. Branch Elementary School. Electrical wiring is exposed, and students are careful to avoid cracks in the playground's asphalt.

"We need new stuff," sixth-grader Damian Rattler said recently while sitting in a chair held together with duct tape.

The 700-student campus is one of 10 California military base schools that the Pentagon has ranked as being in the top third of those most in need of repair nationwide.

In recent years, Congress allocated a total of $945 million to address critical problems with capacity and conditions at public schools on military installations. To access the money, however, school districts or their states must provide 20% in matching funds.

California — which has more schools on the repair list than any other state — is the only one that has not raised the necessary money, Department of Defense spokesman Mark Wright said.

Although the Department of Defense didn't request 2015 funds, Congress allocated an additional $175 million for the Public Schools on Military Installations Program in December.

Only two California school districts, Sierra Sands Unified and San Diego Unified, have said they could meet the matching requirement. Although the money allocated won't expire, it can diminish, Wright said.

"We lost millions on this program because of sequestration," Wright said, referring to the mandatory federal budget cuts of 2013. "I think the fear is we'll lose more if we don't take care of this fast."

At Branch Elementary in the Muroc Joint Unified School District, 60% of the students' parents are in the military.

"It's just sad to think that somebody is out there protecting our country, and at home their kids are going to a school with great teachers but with awful facilities," Principal Dennison Winchell said.

The needed upgrades at Branch, which ranks eighth out of 160 schools on the Pentagon's priority list, will cost $27.8 million — meaning that the district would have to come up with about $5.5 million.

School officials would like to replace the roof, upgrade playground equipment and purchase new doors for classrooms and offices, which currently only lock from the outside. There also are electrical improvements to consider, such as upgrading lighting and installing air conditioning.

Public school districts are often able to cover major maintenance and construction costs with the help of voter-approved bond money generated through property taxes. That doesn't work for military base schools, which are on federal land.

Last year, the California Department of Education asked the Department of Finance to provide $61 million in funding, which would cover the 20% matching for the 10 California schools on the list; the request was denied. A 2013 request was also denied. The California Department of Education is now exploring legislative solutions, a spokeswoman said.

State Sen. Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield) also proposed a bill that would have provided the 20% matching to some of the base schools in need of renovations. But the legislation failed to make it out of committee last year.

Without the federal aid, Fuller said, California may eventually have to pay the total cost of repairs.

"We cannot let this stand," she said.

Muroc Joint Unified has tried to raise the matching funds on its own, chief business officer Trevor Walker said. But the district has only just begun to build a reserve following the recession, he said.

"With how things have been over the last few years with California, facilities have often been neglected in lieu of ensuring that our educational programs stay as robust as possible," Walker said. "We've tried pretty much anything we can think of in hopes we could find that match money. We've come up short, sadly."

Sierra Sands, about 70 miles from Edwards, has two schools on the priority list: Murray Middle School, ranked fourth, and Burroughs High School, ranked 10th. Built in the 1940s on the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, the middle school is in such bad condition that the district needs to rebuild.

Despite saying that it could provide the matching funds, the district is struggling to do so, Supt. Ernie Bell said.

"We're seriously having some concerns about whether or not we can afford it," Bell said. "We're scraping everything we can to make it happen — and that includes using almost all of our reserves to do so."

Muroc Unified has funneled thousands in district money into the design phase of its project, but has not identified additional funds to begin construction.

Sammy Rattler, whose wife is in the Air Force and has been deployed five times, has a child attending Branch. The school, he said, needs more resources.

"When children are left behind here," Rattler said, "parents want the best opportunities possible for them — and a safe environment at school."

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