'Eighth-crappiest' military base school gets share of $63 million

by Harold Pierce, The Bakersfield Californian (Tribune News Service)
Stripes Korea

Irving L. Branch Elementary School, a 774-student campus serving military kids at Edwards Air Force Base, might bear the name of a celebrated general, but the school itself could use some polishing.

Outdated single-pane windows are made of plastic; water and sewer mains routinely break; air conditioning and heating units are shoddy; and the classrooms were built decades ago. When the federal government ranked facilities at all 160 schools located on military bases across the nation a few years ago, Branch fell toward the bottom.

“It was the eighth-crappiest school in the nation,” Muroc Joint Unified School District Superintendent Michael McCoy said.

So when the U.S. Department of Defense decided this week to grant Muroc $63 million to upgrade facilities and modernize three of its schools, including Branch Elementary, McCoy was elated. The district applied for the grant more than seven years ago.

“It’s a pretty phenomenal situation,” McCoy said. “These schools haven’t had anything but paint and some plumbing assistance in years. It’s an exciting time for the desert area.”

Money will be used to upgrade Bailey Elementary, a 350-student campus; modernize Desert High School; and build a new General Irving L. Branch Elementary School to serve grades four through six. The old Branch Elementary will be demolished, McCoy said.

The five-school district is seated in the Mojave Desert, with three of its schools located on Edwards Air Force Base. That’s a blessing when it comes to support from the base, McCoy said.

“Imagine, you’ve got a science class with a unit on gravity and we’ve got NASA on our base, and we can bring in physicists to talk about gravity,” McCoy said.

At the same time, it’s a curse when it comes to facilities funding, McCoy admitted.

Traditionally, when public schools in California need money to modernize buildings and fund construction, they prepare a bond measure and ask voters to contribute millions of dollars over a fixed period, usually between 20 or 30 years. Districts can only ask for a percentage of the assessed property valuation of homes, buildings and other land within its district, though.

That’s a problem for Muroc because military bases can’t be taxed in such a way, and the tax base outside of Edwards AFB isn’t large enough to support a $63 million bond.

“The last time we did any construction work at Boron High School, Eisenhower was in the White House,” McCoy said, referring to one of two schools in the district located off-base. (Muroc passed a $21 million bond measure in November for those two schools.)

Recognizing the lagging tax bases as a widespread problem, the federal government started a program to provide construction dollars to military base schools in need, however schools must get state matching funds for eligibility. California wouldn’t provide those matching dollars — something state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, proposed legislation to change. It was signed into law in October 2015.

That law states the Department of Finance should “explore options” on how to best provide matching funds, but doesn’t obligate the state to provide that money.

“That’s why this district sat here for seven years in limbo, unable to get off the dime. We didn’t have $10 million lying around in loose change in our coffers to do the match,” McCoy said.

Muroc overcame that hurdle this year.

His district detailed in its proposal that instead of constructing one big new school, it modernize a decommissioned one instead — a casualty of attrition of personnel at Edwards AFB — and bring it back to life.

That savings was recognized and identified by the federal government as matching funds, McCoy said.

U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, who McCoy said was integral in securing funding, called the grant a “positive step in keeping our commitment to families making incredible sacrifice on behalf of a grateful nation.”

“It is our duty as a nation to ensure that children of servicemen and servicewomen are provided with best opportunities to learn and grow within the base environment,” McCarthy said in a statement.

McCoy expects to break ground on construction in January.

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©2017 The Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.)
Visit The Bakersfield Californian (Bakersfield, Calif.) at www.bakersfield.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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