Furloughs Cut Into Classtime At U.S. Military Bases

Civilian furloughs have begun at U.S. military installations worldwide. The mandatory days off without pay, prompted by the current round of budget cuts known as sequestration, are looming over Defense Department-run schools that serve the children of military families. For teachers at the nation's most populous Army base, Fort Bragg, cuts mean no new textbooks and a loss of school days.

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When the automatic cuts known as sequestration kicked in, schools on military bases faced a big challenge. They're attended by nearly 90,000 American children, the kids of service members. Traditionally, the schools have been well-funded. But sequestration required school budgets to be slashed by as much as half with more cuts looming.

Ben Bradford of member station WFAE has this story from the Army's most populous base where teachers are preparing for the start of school next month.

BEN BRADFORD, BYLINE: The 5,000 pre-K to eighth grade students on Fort Bragg in North Carolina have resources that other school districts would envy.

At Albritton Middle School, electronic, touchscreen white boards hang on classroom walls. There's a film department. In this sixth grade classroom, students are creating their own mini golf courses. They've laid out strips of fake grass and obstacles like blocks of wood or monster heads to learn about geometry and physics. Each group has a putter to test out their design. Principal Pat Schob says the sequester hasn't changed much.

PAT SCHOB: We are extremely well-funded here, so we have not really felt the impact of the budget cuts.

BRADFORD: The numbers tell a more drastic tale, though. On Fort Bragg, Albritton Middle School's operating budget is less than half of what it was last year. Butner Primary School is down to a third. All schools across all bases in the U.S. and abroad have had their funds for new textbooks and replacement furniture eliminated. Teachers have half their normal budget for supplies. Maintenance has been halved. Principal Schob says, at her school, they're determined to mitigate the damage.

SCHOB: We're going to do this job. You know, this thing has been thrust upon us. We're going to answer that mission. I am not going to look a soldier in the eye and tell him that I'm not going to have the school ready for his child. That will not happen, so we're going to be OK. Am I happy? No. But we're going to support this mission, and I'll do everything I can.

BRADFORD: Lawmakers designed the sequester to make broad, nontargeted cuts, not strategic ones. So the Pentagon lost more than 10 percent of its budget across almost all areas, including its education division. Its deputy director, Linda Curtis, says her department cut new curriculum, travel and professional development, but things like student transportation and even sports are still intact.

LINDA CURTIS: We always tried to have the impact at the above school level whenever possible.

BRADFORD: Next school year, every school will lose a week of class. That's because the Pentagon is furloughing its entire civilian workforce, which includes teachers. Administrators will lose more than two weeks. Fewer school days could prove even more challenging at military schools, where as many as a third of the student body can turn over each year because of deployments. But Curtis says her teachers have an advantage.

CURTIS: They're used to catching kids up whenever they need to, so I think our teachers will do a fine job of ensuring that our students still get a full year of accreditation.

BRADFORD: The missed time reduces the total school year to 178 days, three more than the number needed for accreditation. But it could get even shorter. Another deeper wave of sequester cuts hits in October, and it's not known exactly how long that will last. Curtis says for now, their focus has to be on giving the students of military families the best education with the money they have budgeted.

CURTIS: If we know that it's going to happen again next year, and we don't know that, I don't think anyone does, we will have the whole year so it will be much easier to plan and prioritize our needs for our students.

BRADFORD: The Pentagon doesn't unveil its fiscal 2015 budget until February. On Fort Bragg, school starts August 26th.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Bradford.

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