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Military & Veterans' Issues

Military School Districts Struggle To Survive Sequestration

A recent Fort Sam Houston ISD Cole High School game found the cheerleaders, pep squad, and band all out in support of their team running plays on the field.  And it's likely none of these kids had any idea that their education programs are being threatened by a governmental body that school officials say is not doing its job.

"Sequestration, as you know, is a failure of Congress to come to an agreement concerning the budget," said Dr. Burnie Roper, superintendent of Lackland Independent School Disrict. "So since they could not come to that agreement, sequestration automatically kicked in. And sequestration is a series of cuts that is supposed to take place, I believe it’s over ten years."

Roper is operating at 65 percent of his budget because of new cuts to the Impact Aid program, which funds military-connected school districts in the U.S.

"So we’re having to make all kinds of cuts to try to make up for that," Roper said. "So that’s cuts in personnel and programs."

Superintendents at San Antonio’s other military school districts have similar stories. Randolph ISD has had to cut positions, but has mainly accomplished its cuts through attrition.

Providing support for kids

Daniel H., a senior at Cole this year, said he started his education in New Jersey and has since been to Germany, Massachusetts, Michigan, and finally to San Antonio, and said he appreciates the military connection of on-base schools.

"Well, off-base schools -- most of the time -- all the students have been there their whole lives, so they know each other already. But in military schools it’s much easier to make friends because everybody’s always moving and we’re all used to making friends," he said.

D’Mia S. feels there’s a greater level of accomplishment and competition among students in military-connected schools, despite, or perhaps because of, the upheaval families go through on a regular basis. She's in debate and choir, is a flag girl on the band squad and a cheerleader. She plays track, volleyball, basketball and tennis. 

D'Mia's mother is a single parent and has been deployed multiple times.

"And so she’s deployed a lot," D'Mia said. "And I’ve stayed with friends and other family. And since she was deployed, we were able to stay here."

Credit Eileen Pace / TPR News
TPR News
Counselor Becky Smith talks with Cole High School students before the start of the school year.

In a community where everybody faces similar dangers and family stresses due to multiple deployments of their parents, one of the things the military-connected schools does best is student support.

But superintendents worry that they may not be able to continue their mission of support. Dr. Gail Siller at Fort Sam ISD said sometimes she doesn’t know how they will pay the bills.

"We start paying teachers’ salaries in August right when they come back," Siller said. "We don’t want them to be questioning, ‘Will payroll be met this month?’ We’re not going to do that to them."

The ball is in Congress' court

There is no property tax base for the districts to ask for a tax increase, so the local districts have joined with the National Association of Federally-Impacted Schools for a stronger voice in lobbying Congress for exemption from sequestration.

Freshman Congressman Joaquín Castro said he recognizes the problem and wants to help.

"Well, hopefully we can restore some of that funding," Castro said. "I’m not sure the exact amount that they’re asking for right now, but I look forward to a conversation with them. I serve on the Armed Services Committee and so when we get back, that will be an issue that we’ll take up."

Veteran Congressman Lamar Smith, who is a member of the Impact Aid Coalition, did not have a solution but called the funding vital.

"Military schools, such as Fort Sam ISD in my district, know how to handle issues that are unique to students who may have a parent or parents deployed overseas," Smith said. 

Lance Johnson, the superintendent of Randolph ISD where positions have been cut through attrition, said the superintendents’ hands are tied. They're depending on Congress, as a body, to take action.

"Our Congress members are only one vote," Johnson said. "It’s the leadership in either party that cannot work together that’s causing this gridlock. And it’s affecting many of the nation’s children who don’t have a vote, per se, to make any changes anywhere across the country."