Fort Bragg growth may depend on local school performance

FAYETTEVILLE (WTVD) -- For the first time, the Army is using public school quality as a determining factor in where to station soldiers and their families, as the military further prepares for downsizing.

The quality of Cumberland County Schools may be key to whether the Sandhills region benefits from millions of federal dollars in the coming years, but the local school system did not fare well in a recent study.

The study, its results, and moving forward were the topics of discussion during a Wednesday morning community forum at the Cumberland County Main Public Library. "Education and the Military Community" featured military, education, and government leaders discussing the impact of K-12 education on military students. It was sponsored by the Fayetteville Regional Chamber.

Among the speakers were Fort Bragg's Garrison commander, Col. Jeff Sanborn, Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Frank Till, Major General (Ret.) Bennie Williams, a former Baltimore school system chief of staff, WUNC education reporter Reema Khrais, Eric Guckian, Gov. McCrory's education adviser, and Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Cornell Wilson, McCrory's military adviser.

Earlier this year, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army's Chief of Staff, commissioned the study through WestEd. The group evaluated schools surrounding several key military communities, including Fort Bragg, and largely based school performance on standardized testing. The results indicated the Cumberland County schools closest to the post are also the most challenged. Four percent of the 31 schools evaluated fell in the bottom quartile, said Sanborn. That included about half of the nine Cumberland County high schools.

Sanborn said educational quality is why many families currently stationed at Bragg have opted to move to the outskirts of the county, and into places like Harnett and Moore Counties.

"They're choosing to do it because that's where the best schools are," said Sanborn. "But it sure would be great if they had a great school choice close to Fort Bragg."

Fort Bragg leaders have said the data could be key in the next base realignment, known as BRAC, which could potentially move more soldiers, dependents and dollars into the Sandhills come 2017.

"You can look at it as a threat or opportunity from the standpoint of reinforcing the economic vitality of our community given the fact that Fort Bragg currently injects an estimated $11 billion of activity into our surrounding county [a year]," said Sanborn.

Sanborn did point out flaws with the study, including the fact that military students' test scores were not evaluated separately. They tend to test and perform better than the general student population, he said.

Williams, who was stationed at Fort Bragg for a number of years, and is now a Fuquay-Varina resident, noted 30 percent of high school graduates are unable to pass military entrance exams. He said benchmarks are important to evaluating.

He and other panelists spoke in support of the Common Core standards, which are set to end in North Carolina because of legislation passed earlier this year.

Cumberland County Schools leaders said they recognized challenges within the system, but noted the lack of re-gentrification happening in areas highlighted in the study, the "forgotten neighborhoods" outside of Fort Bragg, as Sanborn called them. Leaders said to gain economic stability and educational grounding, it will take a county and city effort to address poverty. Till said no one advocates for the county's poor, "faceless" children.

"When the urban renewal comes, the schools will be a part of that," said Till. "We're a key part of that, I'm not trying to negate that, but there has to be a bigger plan that us simply saying 'we need it.'"

Till said 33 percent of Cumberland County school children are military connected, and the state legislatures will need to recognize military communities for their transient nature, making budget decisions based on student growth the system incurs through Fort Bragg. The "per capita income" plan may work well in places like Wake County, but not in Cumberland County, he said.

"That formula doesn't work for military families," Till said.

It's unclear how the Department of the Army plans to weigh the public school performance in its ultimate decision when it comes to another likely round of BRAC.

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