By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service
FORT RILEY, Kan., May 20, 2011 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates returned here yesterday to deliver on a promise he made last year.
Gates told the spouses that he was aware of the situation and had identified Defense Department money that could help. He promised to secure the required congressional approval to transfer the money to the Education Department for action.
"Today, we mark a major step forward in solving school overcrowding here at Fort Riley, a problem that had become a major retention issue for the [1st Infantry Division], which is on its fourth deployment since 2003," he said.
Defense Department officials indentified the facilities here as being the most in need of rehabilitation of any across the armed services, the secretary said, so the need to act was clear. The problem, though, is not unique to Fort Riley, the secretary said.
"It is clear that such on-installation public school facility problems are pervasive," Gates said. "The department has more than 150 public schools on military installations across America, and a recent assessment showed that many other school districts have similar difficulties raising the revenue required to meet capacity requirements and rehabilitate aging facilities."
All stakeholders – including local, state and federal governments – must address the problem, Gates said, and he noted that, as a first step, Congress has appropriated $250 million for the Defense Department to directly assist school districts in revitalizing the public schools on military installations that have the greatest need.
"That funding will pay for this new elementary school, and also provide the resources this year toward resolving the capacity issue at Fort Riley Middle School," he said.
Local school districts should and will remain ultimately responsible for public school facilities on military bases, the secretary said. But the Defense Department, he added, always will be ready to intervene when it has the ability to improve military children's educational opportunities.
"We owe nothing less to our men and women in uniform and their families, who have sacrificed so much in order to serve our country," he said.
Future kindergarten students – each wearing a construction worker's hard hat – manned the shovels for the ceremonial groundbreaking for what will be their new school.
Geary County Unified School District 475 operates five elementary schools and a middle school here. Five of the six schools are more than 50 years old, and recent growth at the installation has contributed to the posts' schools being 35 percent over capacity.
Temporary fixes have included converting available usable space into classrooms, which has led to a lack of other educational activity space.
Before the groundbreaking ceremony, Gates met privately with several dozen military spouses to seek their input on family-related issues.
(Shandi Dix of the 1st Infantry Division Post contributed to this article.)
Robert M. Gates