Like four of her 19 classmates, fifth-grader Catie Hunter struggles with an absent parent -- her soldier-father has served overseas for half her life -- and a school that is falling apart. Three in four Pentagon-run schools on military installations are beyond repair or require renovation. Emma Schwartz/Center for Public Integrity
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Catie Hunter is only 11 years old. Her father, an Army platoon sergeant, has spent five of those years away from her, serving his country in Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan. At her elementary school on an Oklahoma military post, ceiling tiles are removed so that when a Great Plains storm rumbles in, rain can cascade from the rotting roof into large trash cans underneath. To get to class, Catie must dodge what she calls “Niagara Falls.”

Each day as the fifth grader enters Geronimo Road Elementary School, she walks beneath the tiles, bent and browned, some dangling by threads of glue. In her classroom, an archaic air conditioning unit at times drowns out her teacher’s voice. Signs of disrepair abound: chipped floors, termite-infested walls, cracks the size of the principal’s finger along brick halls. A bucket, strapped by a bungee cord, hangs over the gym door — another makeshift fix for leaks.

“I’m really proud of the fact that the school is still standing,” said Catie, a pixie of a girl who twitches her nose when she talks.”Sometimes, I wonder if it’s going to fall in.”

Catie’s Fort Sill schoolhouse, built before Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower ran for president, isn’t the only one in poor shape. Tens of thousands of children — from Georgia to Kansas, Virginia to Washington state — attend schools on military bases that are falling apart from age and neglect, and fail to meet even the military’s own standards. Some schools have tainted water and fouled air; others are so overcrowded teachers improvise, holding class in hallways, supply closets, and in one instance, working in a boiler room. Outdated? One school in Germany was built by the Nazis.

Where Nazis once stashed weapons is now a closet in the basement of a Pentagon-run school in Germany. The barracks were designed for Rommel’s Panzer division, not education. Jenny Hoff / iWatch News

The strains only add to the emotional pressures on the sons and daughters of U.S. military personnel after 10 years of war and long, frequent absences. The average military parent is deployed three times, each lasting 15 to 18 months. Stresses on families routinely bubble up where soldiers’ children attend class. At Catie’s Geronimo Road school, students have burst into tears after getting a phone call from Iraq. Or screamed, “I want to kill you.” Or picked up a desk and thrown it across the floor. Other effects at the schools of military sons and daughters are less pronounced yet unmistakable: Modest declines in test scores; individual grades that falter; rising student absenteeism.

Catie has been separated from her father four times since her birth. “I wish he were here,” she said. “I miss him a lot.” Her 16-year-old sister, Amanda, an honor roll student, received her first “F” shortly after the start of her father’s latest extended trip overseas. “It can be overwhelming,” said Amanda, her hazel eyes welling with sadness.

Such sacrifices, increasingly commonplace during the last decade, have gone unnoticed by many Americans. The nation’s reliance on a limited pool of volunteers to safeguard U.S. interests and wage two wars has had ripple effects on the home front. Altogether, parents of 220,000 children — including 116,000 of school-age — are currently doing the work the nation expects of them and that sends them far from home.

Those mothers and fathers might have expected schools with better conditions than these.

“I would feel disrespected if I were on my second or third tour of duty and then my kids were in a school that was dilapidated and too small or falling apart,” said Chet Edwards, a former congressman who chaired a House appropriations military construction subcommittee before losing reelection last year. “If there is one school in the world military children are attending that is dilapidated and undersized, that’s wrong. But the fact is there are a lot of serious problems out there.”

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A broken promise

When America’s warfighters enter military service, sometimes putting their lives on the line, the government makes a promise: It will care for those left behind. There’s an explicit understanding that the nation will nurture and enrich soldiers’ children in safe and secure educational environments — they are assured, in the words of a U.S. Army recruiting vow, “the best possible education and experience.”

The 1978 Defense Dependents Education Act requires the military to provide “academic services of a high quality” to the children of soldiers on active duty. A 1988 Defense Department directive goes further, broadly guaranteeing military families “a quality of life that reflects the high standards and pride of the nation they defend” — including education. First Lady Michelle Obama touts the administration’s vision of “an America where every military child has the support they need to grow and learn and realize their dreams.” The White House, joining history’s chorus of voices of support for sons and daughters of soldiers, is pledging to “ensure excellence in military children’s education.”

But an array of substandard conditions at many of the 353 schools for military children around the world undercuts such assurances. Three in four Defense Department-run schools on military installations are either beyond repair or would require extensive renovation to meet minimum standards for safety, quality, accessibility and design, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News has found. Those schools do not meet the military’s own expectations, and – for lack of money from Washington – aren’t likely to improve greatly any time soon.

Other priorities — including spending on wars at a rate of around $2 billion each week — have overshadowed the needs of students from military families. All told, the mounting number of fixes and new schools would cost nearly $4 billion — around the same amount being spent this year just on drone aircraft, or, measured another way, half the cost of NASA’s Hubble Telescope, which observes distant galaxies from earth’s orbit.

Where military children go to school depends on circumstances often beyond families’ control. More than 500,000 children, the largest proportion, live off base, attending local schools in urban or suburban communities that often have significantly more resources. But families who live on military installations — either for economic, career or security reasons — send their children to one of 194 base schools operated by the Pentagon around the world, or 159 base schools in the U.S. operated by local school districts. These students — about 150,000 in all — are likely to attend schools with significant structural deficiencies. Many buildings are nearly a half-century old.

The Pentagon has placed 39 percent of its 194 schools in the worst category of “failing,” which means it costs more to renovate than replace them, reports to Congress show. Another 37 percent are classified in “poor” physical shape, which could require either replacement or expensive renovations to meet standards. (See the full list of poor and failing schools here)

Schools run by public systems on Army installations don’t fare much better: 39 percent fall in the failing or poor categories, according to a 2010 Army report.

A Defense Department task force is evaluating the 159 military base schools operated by local public systems. Only nine months into its work, the task force already has found indications of the larger problem; summaries of preliminary assessments of 15 schools shared with iWatch News leave little room for doubt about the conditions. The summary for Geronimo Road, for instance, notes that it is in “failing condition” and “should be considered for replacement.” The Pentagon declined to provide a copy of its assessments for all 159 schools.

In a written response to questions from iWatch News, the Pentagon’s education agency, the Department of Defense Education Activity, or DoDEA, acknowledged that it “cannot keep pace with the types of renovations and maintenance needed when a school building goes beyond its useful life and the age of the building becomes a barrier to using these dollars wisely.”

Makeshift classrooms, sweltering students

Visits by iWatch News to military base schools across the globe over the last four months, involving nearly 200 interviews with educators, parents and students from Tacoma, Washington, to Stuttgart, Germany, present a bleak picture of conditions endured by the sons and daughters of U.S. military personnel.

At Fort Riley in Kansas, Morris Hill Elementary School students drink water tainted brown from corroding pipes. Fort Campbell, Kentucky, schoolchildren endure “air outs” from faulty ventilation units, leaving them without air conditioning in sweltering Augusts. When winter temperatures drop below 50 degrees, classroom heaters break down.

In Quantico, Virginia, just 30 miles south of the gleaming temples of government in the nation’s capital, students at Russell Elementary School tolerate the consequences of relic air units, busted water pipes, and only one handicapped-accessible bathroom, too small for some disabled children to navigate their wheelchairs. The classroom for students with severe disabilities, meanwhile, has a small restroom dating back to 1953, well before schools had to meet special education needs. It’s a tiny space the size of a closet with little more than a toilet and sink with a dripping faucet. Parents say teachers have to undress children nearby and carry them inside.

In adjacent Prince William County, one of the country’s more affluent suburbs, the schools are more modern. Over the last decade alone, the local district has built 26 new schools, some with dazzling campuses that stretch across former cornfields and cow pastures. It’s an instance of the frequent inequities between the schools of military children and the nearby schools of everyone else. “Some of the new schools in town make our schools look like a prison,” said David C. Primer, who uses a 1980s-era trailer at the much-heralded Marine Corps Base Quantico to teach his German classes. Storms are noisy affairs that jostle the temporary classrooms.

“We are at a huge disadvantage because of this facility,” said Kistella Mitchell, an active-duty soldier whose son graduates from the Quantico high school this year. The base’s older schools have been rigged with plastic “power poles” to support technology, and teachers say fire marshals have cited them for using extension cords.

Two miles outside Stuttgart, Germany, on an Army post known as Panzer Kaserne, children of American soldiers attend Boeblingen Elementary School — built 73 years ago by the Nazis. Erwin Rommel’s tank division used it as a barracks. The school building, the military’s oldest, is ill-equipped for modern education.

Younger students stay on the first of its four floors, and are consigned to trailers when classrooms fill up. Older students tolerate tiny classrooms with tiny windows on the third floor, where their desks are crammed side-by-side or shoved into corners, making it, as fourth-grader Sarah Tabbott describes, “really hot up there.” Some modifications — such as adding fire escapes — took place only after the school was cited in 2006 for nine fire safety violations.

Conditions at other schools border on hazardous. At Fort Stewart, in Hinesville, Georgia, two of the three elementary schools are beset by poor indoor air quality. Mold has grown on walls, sprouted through floors, and stained vents. Complaints have persisted for a decade despite inspections, tests and fixes involving a costly cast of architects, industrial hygienists, microbiologists and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Last fall, administrators cordoned off a library for a month so they could engage in a major cleanup that involved steam-blasting its rafters and sanitizing its books. That hasn’t alleviated other troubles at the school: scurrying cockroaches; lights shorted by water leaks. On April 8, a disintegrating gas line ruptured in a cafeteria, sparking a small fire.

“The conditions are terrible,” said Tina French, whose two autistic children attend Diamond Elementary School, where that fire erupted. Staffing shortfalls have left her son without an assigned paraprofessional, as prescribed by his psychiatrist. “DOD schools are supposed to be the best,” French said. “We’re not seeing that here.”

Teachers at crowded schools find creative solutions. To escape commotion in the hallways, where she often tests students, Fort Riley Elementary teacher Kristi York would retreat behind the door labeled BOILER ROOM. Since being barred from the space — it was “not the best or safest environment,” said school principal Becky Lay — York has turned to a storage closet packed with rolls of colored paper, overhead projectors and a laminating machine.

The military’s education agency said in a written response to questions from iWatch News that “none of our schools is unsafe and no school is a hazard to anyone.” Administrators tend to portray their schoolhouses as “well worn” yet maintained — not neglected. Many exceed their planned lifespans. Half of the military’s schools are at least 45 years old. “You fix things that are so old, they still look old,” said Marilee Fitzgerald, DoDEA’s acting director. The 19-year-old agency oversees the military’s schools worldwide.

Pentagon officials contacted by iWatch News have recognized these substandard conditions for years. Robert Gordon, the Defense Department’s top official overseeing family affairs, said the Pentagon has taken steps in recent months to address deficiencies — creating the task force to survey base schools, evaluating the quality of education, and finding money to replace aging schools over the next five to seven years. But the goal would require appropriations from a Congress increasingly wary of new spending. Gordon noted the Pentagon’s current aim is to devise a blueprint for state-of-the-art, “21st century” schools, while acknowledging the lack of a commitment on Capitol Hill to spend the money necessary.

During an interview with iWatch News, Gordon, a former West Point political science professor and aide-de-camp to Colin Powell, pointed to an Obama administration focus on military families as proof of a commitment to improve education. He predicted “significant changes of which our community will be proud, and which will provide a world-class educational environment for our kids.”

Leaders have sounded similar notes in the past. John Molino, a Gordon predecessor, sought money from Congress for “quality schools” in 2001. Molino touted “the Bush administration’s commitment to the quality education of the sons and daughters of America’s sons and daughters selflessly serving.” Former congressman Edwards recalled urging the military to fix the schools during the four years he chaired an appropriations subcommittee.

Such efforts have hardly unleashed a flood of construction cash; in the decade since Molino’s testimony, money for rebuilding the military’s schools has risen only by $162 million — less than 1 percent of all military spending.

The Defense Department’s primary business, of course, involves national security, not schooling kids. Weapons, wars and other budget priorities tend to overshadow homefront necessities. Public school districts, which educate nine out of 10 military children, often on military installations, also have had trouble finding the dollars to replace and repair foundering schools. This fiscal year, Congress allotted $750 million to fix some of the base schools’ shortcomings — a fraction of the need.

Now, with President Obama signaling the start of a drawdown in troops from Afghanistan coinciding with political clamoring in Washington for reduced spending, some advocates wonder just how meaningful all the promises will be.

Joyce Raezer is director of the National Military Family Association, which for four decades has established itself as a respected voice advocating for families. “Building schools is really expensive,” she noted. “So how many school districts and school buildings will actually benefit from this focus, we’ll see.”

‘Sticking a Band-Aid on everything’

To be sure, many factors besides the condition of a building affect learning. Quality of teachers, for instance, or the availability of effective textbooks and technology can yield dramatic classroom results. But many educators say the mix of pressures unique to military children — crumbling schools, overcrowded classrooms, and absent parents who may not return — has a measurable effect on the feelings of students and on how well they do in school.

“There are so many needs,” said Whitney Gee, a psychologist at three schools on Fort Riley. “I feel like I’m running around sticking a Band-Aid on everything.”

Good teachers adapt to decrepit school conditions, said Fitzgerald, the DoDEA acting director. “But they do have an impact.” While difficult to prove, Pentagon education officials have tried. As the backlog of substandard schoolhouses swelled in recent years, Russell Roberts, the agency’s facilities chief, set out to establish what appeared to be a link between deterioration and academics. Some studies have suggested such a link. Yet in the end, said Roberts, “I couldn’t say, ‘This kid got an F because of dingy bathroom tiles.’”

Pentagon officials denied iWatch News requests for detailed school-by-school data that would have permitted a direct and more comprehensive assessment of the association between higher deployment rates, the condition of facilities and lower test scores. Without specific information about enrollment and lengths of deployments of parents at each school, it’s hard to obtain a full, reliable picture. Yet even with such shortcomings, the iWatch News analysis of data it was able to obtain from 2008 showed a slight yet statistically significant adverse effect from deployment on test scores, especially on scores from the middle schools.

In a written response to questions from iWatch News, meanwhile, the Defense Department’s education agency acknowledged “no doubt that deployments have an effect on every aspect of a child’s life,” including education.

Over the past decade, multiple deployments have become what Lindsay Ralston, Fort Sill’s school liaison officer, terms “the new normal” — parents gone, on second, third, and fourth tours, for months at a time. Since the Iraq invasion, the Army alone has deployed 23,302 soldiers with children at least three times. That means at least one parent of the typical nine-year-old has been absent for half her life.

The military tends to refer to the “resiliency” of its children. “You have to become adaptable,” noted the Defense Department’s Gordon, who as a military child himself was shuttled between homes on multiple bases and continents during his father’s Army postings to places such as Colorado, Virginia, Germany and Taiwan.

While children can learn to cope, the emotional trauma that they bear when their absent parents are in harm’s way often plays itself out in the classroom. At Fort Stewart’s Diamond Elementary, the school with the mold and cockroach infestations, Tina French has noticed her 12-year-old daughter, Victoria, picking fights during deployments. Her Army mechanic husband has done four stints in Iraq. Each time, Victoria, a sixth grader diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, has regressed at school, lashing out at classmates. “She’s pushing boundaries because she’s stressed,” said French, who has found herself in the office for Victoria’s discipline referrals.

Trenton LeForge, the three-year-old son of an Army sergeant stationed at Fort Riley, has suffered separation anxiety since his father left for Iraq in November — the third deployment. Trenton refused to go to preschool at Fort Riley’s Ware Elementary School. When his mother, Carri, dropped him off, Trenton would cling to her, screaming, “Are you going to Iraq, too?” By April, he had begun attending class with help from one of the 1,000 special counselors provided by the Defense Department to schools to support students with deployed parents — or one counselor for every 116 students.

Overcrowding at Ware Elementary leaves parents like LeForge worried that her sons’ teachers cannot pay enough attention to their emotional needs — at a time when they require it the most. “It’s already a high-stress situation when you have all these deployments,” LeForge said. “The crowding is just a piling on of everything else we have to deal with.”

Her oldest son, nine-year-old Trevor, misses his father in church on Sundays, the big black bible in his father’s sturdy hands, and at Ware’s overflowing school assemblies where he would applaud heartily whenever Trevor made top honor roll. At Fort Bragg, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, J.W. Grabrysiak, 11, son of an Army electrician, yearns to fly kites again with his father in the backyard.

Sadee Songer, a precocious fifth grader at Fort Riley’s Morris Hill, the school with the brown water, cannot recall how often her father has been away in the last 10 years – it may have been three or four times. She remembers him attending only one birthday party, and trick-or-treating with him once.”It makes me sad,” she said.

Less than a year after returning from Iraq, Catie Hunter’s father in January left for Korea – an unexpected tour just when Sgt. Bryan Hunter had decided to retire because of the many missed moments with his family. When Catie found out about his latest orders to deploy, she collapsed in tears.

Once, during her father’s 2009 deployment to Iraq, he was supposed to come for a visit. The family dressed in red, white and blue, wearing beads and waving flags as troops filed through the gate at Dallas International Airport. Her father wasn’t one of them. He had missed his flight. Catie hit the floor, sobbing.

Clingy since, Catie insists on sleeping in her parents’ bed.

Multiple deployments can compound the impact of parental absences on academic achievement. A March 2011 study by the RAND Corporation for the Army found that children with parents deployed for at least 19 months had “modestly lower” test scores than their peers — regardless of gender or parent’s rank. “Rather than developing resiliency,” the study states, “children appear to struggle more with more cumulative months of deployment.”

The study reinforced findings in an earlier RAND study, in 2009, which associated greater academic difficulties with longer deployments. And a 2010 study by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point found lengthy deployments had a modest negative effect on test scores of children enrolled in military schools, especially those in the lower grades. It also implied that children whose parents deploy for longer periods may fall permanently behind when they reach the higher grades, the researchers concluded in the study. Said Raezer, of the National Military Family Association, the advocacy group that commissioned the 2009 RAND study: “I believe some of these kids are the casualties of war.”

Many teachers blame a perceived rise in behavioral issues on increasing deployments. Students have crawled under desks; come to class in pajamas; grabbed teachers in fits of rage. Data collected by some Defense Department schools support such anecdotes. This year, the system experienced an average 94 incidents at each school with high levels of deployment, compared with about 51 incidents at schools where relatively few students’ have parents serving far away.

The toll has manifested itself in greater absenteeism, too, with students typically missing class before and after deployments. “How can we tell a mom, ‘You can’t take your kid to see grandma after dad’s been gone for a year?’” posed Cheryl Serrano, of the Fountain-Fort Carson School District, which operates five schools on the Colorado Springs post. By February, her district had recorded 1,700 students — 23 percent — absent at least 10 percent of school days. Educators at Defense Department schools say some students skip 50, 60, or even 70 days a year.

At specific schools, principals said the impact on academic performance is unmistakable. Vern Steffens, who heads Fort Riley’s Jefferson Elementary School, which already has a “poor” rating for its deterioration, said he worried about low test scores as well. He noted that as the proportion of students with a deployed parent rose over the last two years, from 23 percent to 41 percent, reading test proficiency rates plummeted 23 percentage points.

Because of that drop, in 2010, Jefferson did not make what’s known as “adequate yearly progress,” a measurement of how well schools are meeting standards required under the No Child Left Behind Act. At the time of state testing, 2,800 soldiers in the post’s Combat Aviation Brigade were in the process of deploying — including 175 parents at a school with 349 students.

“They were focused on their dads leaving,” said Steffens, not on tests.

Swelling numbers, crowded classrooms

Deterioration and deployments are hardly the only afflictions at Jefferson, one of six schools on Fort Riley, a sprawling post in the Flint Hills, that majestic part of Kansas known for its tallgrass prairies. Military consolidation and war have led to an explosion in growth at the fort, with added Army units from shuttered bases — 18,000 soldiers in all.

Open fields have given way to rows of cookie-cutter houses strewn with American flags and WELCOME HOME, PAPA banners. The boom has put pressure on Fort Riley’s outdated schools, officially rated as being in “poor” shape. In six years, enrollment has grown 25 percent — packing 2,741 students into buildings designed to hold 2,013. And still they come: Administrators anticipate another 400 by August. “We’re just bulging at the seams,” said Deb Gustafson, principal of Ware Elementary, where the LeForge boys go. In September, 702 students attended this school built for just 580. Within nine months, the number topped 800.

Overcrowding has made for large class sizes — around 30 students, compared to the typical 20 students per class in the nation’s public elementary schools overall, according to Education Department data. Fort Riley’s Morris Hill Elementary has even had 35 fifth graders and their desks crammed into a classroom of 850 square feet — about the size of a small city apartment.

Educators have improvised new classrooms from staff lounges, principals’ offices, even supply closets. At Fort Riley Middle School, teachers travel from one class to the next, hauling carts of textbooks and laptops. Administrators at Custer Hill Elementary School have converted the stage in an auditorium into a classroom. At Fort Riley Elementary School, the stage has been relinquished to the custodian’s desk.

Among the most crowded schools, Fort Riley Elementary, with an average student-teacher ratio of 28-to-one, sits atop a hill overlooking the historic main post. Inside, corridors are dotted with tiny desks and chairs, where students are tutored. Hallway vestibules, three-by-five feet, have become testing areas for students, like Paige Boland, now nine. Her mother, Tracy, remembers walking into school nearly three years ago, and spotting Paige, then a first grader, kneeling on the floor, reading aloud to her teacher in one of those vestibules. Her teacher, Boland learned, had nowhere else to go.

As a school support monitor, Boland, who assists teachers with student discipline, once had an office, replete with pillows, where she could help kids deal with what she calls “their moments.” This year, she has aided students wherever she could — the gym, the principal’s office. One fifth grader recently broke down in tears in class because her mother was injured in Iraq. Boland spent an hour with the girl, leading her from room to room, seeking a private space to calm her down.

For students, the overcrowding can feel overwhelming. They bump into classmates; they get distracted. “I feel like I haven’t learned anything all year,” said Sadee Songer, the fifth grader at Fort Riley’s Morris Hill, because so many students are competing for attention. Her class had as many as 35 kids. Songer complains of having to do busy work rather than lessons that challenge her. “The teacher doesn’t give a lot of attention,” she said.

“I feel like I haven’t learned anything all year.”

Sadee Songer, fifth grader at Fort Riley’s Morris Hill

Overcrowding leads to other constraints in education, too. Teacher Megan Stucky has calculated that, during a six-hour school day, she devotes just 11 minutes, uninterrupted, to each of her 26 kindergarteners. Her colleague, Kimberly Dressman, cannot ask her first graders to read stories aloud now that her reading group consists of 22. And Jolynn Henry cannot keep up with her second graders’ soccer games and birthday parties since having an average 30 students in her class — the largest in her 26-year career.

Schoolhouse strains have begun showing in some metrics of performance — and not just at Jefferson. In a letter to the local school board, Greg Lumb, principal of Morris Hill, noted that, from 2008 to 2010, the post’s elementary schools have added 298 total students — up 17 percent — and only four total classrooms, while their “standard of excellence” awards for students who score in the highest percentiles in reading and math on state tests have dropped — from 114 to 79.

Becky Lay, principal of Fort Riley Elementary, worries about the nine percentage-point decline in her school’s scores. Already, she and fellow administrators are gearing up for hundreds more soldiers and their families next year. “At times,” she said, “I wonder, ‘How much longer can we hold on before we break?’”

‘Scary’ conditions and temporary fixes

Emblematic of the challenges and consequences are the military’s two older schools on Fort Stewart, an artillery post an hour south of Savannah, Georgia, speckled with lush pines. From the outside, they look tidy, clean and their ceiling tiles gleam. But what lurks beneath their surface is what Tim James, the former operations chief overseeing maintenance at the schools, finds “unbearable.” At Diamond Elementary, leaks from its rotting roof have caused lights in classroom G3 to spark — “a serious safety hazard,” according to an Aug. 24, 2010, inspection report — forcing administrators to evacuate the classroom. Buckets, some of them 55 gallons, routinely collect rain.

Documents obtained by iWatchNews peg the roof leaks as the top culprit for vexing indoor air-quality problems, compounded by antiquated ventilation units. Teachers have complained about a host of health issues including sinus flare ups and allergic reactions. Connie McCurtis, a special education teacher, says she never suffered such severe respiratory woes until coming to Diamond five years ago. In December she left. Meanwhile, administrators acknowledge having to move some teachers from classrooms or transferring them altogether.

“The conditions scare me,” said Michelle Sherman, whose two sons, ages six and four, attend Diamond. She attributes her kindergartner’s two bouts of pneumonia to conditions at the school. Her preschooler’s teacher filed a complaint about “black stuff” blowing from vents; ceiling tiles “turning gray to black”; and “damp and musky” odors, internal emails show. Cockroaches are regularly spotted on walls, electrical plugs and cafeteria tables.

Administrators are scrambling for temporary fixes. In February 2010, the Defense Department paid for a year-long, $110,000 study on the school’s air quality, conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers. Meanwhile, documents show, inspectors noted “visual signs of mold” in the library and “high counts of mold spores” in two classrooms. Remedies include new “air handlers,” and anticipated patching of the roof — a major job. Administrators are considering “simple alterations” to the ventilation system to address elevated carbon dioxide levels.

“All we’re doing is putting Band-Aids on the problems,” acknowledged Robert Heffley, who manages school facilities at Fort Stewart. The 1955 Diamond schoolhouse is not slated for replacement until 2015.

Brittin Elementary School, two miles away, has the distinction of being the only Defense Department school shut down because of poor air quality. After years of problems and complaints, administrators in 2002 moved its population into trailers while replacing its ventilation system — a multimillion-dollar expense. Some teachers say mold has since returned, sickening staff and pupils. An April 2006 indoor air-quality inspection shows teachers have reported everything from “burning hands and numb tongues” to “students sneezing.” The report found dirty air filters, “prone to mold growth,” and “elevated carbon dioxide levels” signifying “poor ventilation.”

The Pentagon’s education agency, in a written response to iWatch News, said “the claim that Band-Aid fixes were made is inaccurate,” and noted that architects, engineers, industrial hygienists and microbiologists all had visited Brittin and helped devise remedies.

Area school officials, too, dismissed concerns as overblown. Superintendent Samantha Ingram acknowledged schools are “worn out” but said the air quality concerns are “a perception problem.” The most recent study on Diamond, she said, found no “bad” air. A copy of the preliminary report from the Army Corps of Engineers, provided to iWatchNews, shows inspectors found “slightly elevated mold concentrations” in a dozen classrooms, as well as carbon dioxide “above recommended levels.” While not generally indicative of a health concern, the findings suggested a need for further tests.

Parents and teachers at several schools described building issues that languish for months; sometimes, they say, it takes a visit by an outsider — a VIP or a reporter — to fix things. During a reporter’s April visit for this story, custodians were replacing water fountains at Brittin that, teachers say, had been busted for four years.

Some parents are willing to overlook troubles at the military’s schools in expectation of a coming replacement — or in hopes of a transfer. Educators at Rota High School, on Naval Station Rota, in Spain, liken their new, $23 million building to “paradise” — a welcome substitute for the 1958 facility shuttered last fall. The Army has funded construction of some swanky, state-of-the-art schools on its posts, including one at Fort Stewart that features wide open halls, spacious classrooms, computer labs with built-in fixtures, and a massive gym.

At Murray Elementary School, on Fort Bragg, custodians sealed the roof after rainwater poured into the gym, spurring health complaints and air tests. Seven miles away, at Irwin Intermediate School, air units fail about once a month, leaving students hot or bitterly cold. But with a new school under construction, parents and teachers said they can overlook the obvious dilapidation. “It wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before,” said Mimi Claftin, whose fifth-grade son attends Irwin. She and others say they are willing to sacrifice on physical defects because of caring educators, diverse programming and modern technology.

Money shortfalls and friends in high places

Over the past decade, as the nation waged two wars, annual military spending skyrocketed 150 percent to $729 billion while money for the military’s schools has risen less quickly — about 50 percent, to $1.9 billion. Money for school construction has amounted to even less, an average $81 million annually from 2001 to 2010 — barely the cost of a RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance vehicle, the latest “drone” used by the U.S. Air Force. That’s only enough money to replace two of the more than 130 substandard schools each year. At that rate, it would take 67 years to replace or renovate all 134 poor and failing schools. By then, of course, there’d be more of them.

Last August, the Defense Department’s education agency unveiled a plan that could take up to seven years to replace or renovate its failing and poor schoolhouses — at $3.7 billion. “Military personnel already make a lot of sacrifices,” said Fitzgerald, the acting director, explaining the Defense Department’s “good news” investment. “What the department is trying to do is to make sure their children are not sacrificed as well.”

But Congress has committed only $484 million for the current fiscal year, enough to repair or replace 10 schools. Under the blueprint, another 97 would be repaired or replaced by 2017 — provided Congress agrees to spend the remaining $3.2 billion. But in the current political climate in Washington, such a pricetag suggests slim odds of approval.

Meanwhile, the government each year spends another relatively small amount, $30 million, on “impact aid” for public schools with students whose parents work in the military. But that money is spread among more than 120 school districts and doesn’t always trickle down to where it is needed. Some schools have spent the money on counseling and special education that benefits military children, but others have made general purchases such as computers for teachers. In Minot, North Dakota, for instance, the money has gone for new copier machines and paving parking lots. The federal government gives districts wide latitude in how the money can be used.

In Kansas, every school district, even those without military students, is entitled to some of the money. That leaves the system serving Fort Riley, for example, with only $3 million of the $12 million it is entitled to — hardly enough to build new schools, and most of it needed for $2 million annually in routine maintenance. “It would take a lot of time to save for a new elementary school,” said Ron Walker, the superintendent in Geary County.

The dual system that has evolved for the education of military offspring has itself created confusion and conflict over who has responsibility for meeting students’ needs. Some attend Pentagon-run schools, others are managed by local school systems, including many on bases. Taxpayers are wont to front money for new schools, creating haves and have-nots — with military students being the have-nots.

In Junction City, Kansas, for instance — near where Sadee Songer goes to school — voters in 2006 approved spending $33 million to address overcrowding. It was the first such bond in the community for five decades, and contained enough money to build two new schools. The support has yet to extend to schools on the Fort Riley post. “The local taxpayer says, ‘Why should we fix or build new schools there?” said Charles Volland, communications director of the Geary County schools.

Kate Sullivan, whose two youngest sons attend Geronimo Road, bristles at the rejection by Lawton, Oklahoma, residents in 2009 of a $13 million bond to fix that school. That forced the district to collect half through a sales tax. “Finger pointing” broke out between the local community and the federal government, said Sullivan. Ralston, school liaison officer at Fort Sill, summed up the debate over schools caught in the jurisdictional no-mans-land: “People in Lawton have said, ‘Hey, those schools are Fort Sill’s,’ and Fort Sill has said, ‘Hey, they’re not our schools.’”

Accumulating shortfalls have translated into trade-offs at the military’s schools. “Do we build schools, or do we give more money to the educational program?” said Kevin Kelly, DoDEA’s budget director. Rather than plow money into major maintenance — renovating old classrooms, overhauling old infrastructures — administrators say they have relied on Band-Aids and cosmetics, fueling the military’s backlog of 130-plus schoolhouses in disrepair today.

“Without those sustainment dollars,” said Roberts of the military’s education agency, who oversees school construction, “our facilities did deteriorate.”

It helps to have friends in high places, of course. Defense Secretary Gates on May 19 attended the groundbreaking ceremony for a new elementary school on Fort Riley. He reminded the crowd of a personal commitment he made a year earlier when noticing “the very unfortunate and bad situations here.” The Army transferred $29 million from its coffers for the new school. “Today,” said Gates, “I deliver on that commitment.” One parent, Twinkle Astorga, was so elated she drove a half mile to the construction site, her four kids in tow. Later, her deployed husband called from Iraq, asking if the news was true.

Last August, Rep. Norm Dicks, the top Democrat on the House defense appropriations subcommittee, inserted $250 million into military spending for fiscal 2011 “to address capacity or facility condition deficiencies” at base schools run by local public systems, which Congress passed in April. Among the potential beneficiaries: schools in his district, on the Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Tacoma, Washington, which he described as having “deplorable” conditions. Six of the base’s seven schools are a half-century old, fail to meet building codes, and face overcrowding. The district stands to collect $150 million of the congressional funds. Another is Geronimo Road, now scheduled for replacement sometime before 2016. Two months after iWatch News visited Catie Hunter’s school and started asking questions, Army undersecretary Joseph Westphal on May 7 visited, pledging “to help rebuild our schools on this installation.”

Good intentions sometimes lead to incomplete solutions. After a 2008 report to Congress catalogued the dismal state of the military’s own schools, the Pentagon began funneling some money into them. The results are noticeable. Today, even the most decrepit schools can abound with what some teachers describe as “an overkill” of classroom smart boards, flat-screen TVs and furniture.

Still, said former Rep. Edwards, who served for two decades, military families with few resources must compete for budget dollars with the well-oiled lobby machines of the military-industrial complex. “I had hundreds of representatives and lobbyists come into my office fighting for multibillion-dollar weapons programs,” recalled the former appropriations subcommittee chairman. “But I only had a handful who ever walked in and said, ‘we need more impact aid funding or we need to improve DOD schools or our kids deserve better education.’ It’s just a stacked deck.”

One of the few advocating for school money is John Forkenbrock, executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, which lobbied Dicks to set aside special spending for the selected schools. Larger solutions have proved elusive, however. “It’s like pulling teeth to get Congress to recognize there may well be a federal responsibility here,” he said.

Dicks spokesman George Behan said the appropriation for base schools run by local districts was only a start, “intended to be an ongoing effort until we bring [all of the] schools back to standards.”

The school funding was among $1.4 billion in spending items that drew criticism from Republican John McCain, who argued on the Senate floor in April that such programs are “not considered core activities of the Department of Defense,” and blasted them as “examples of … misallocated resources.”

The Defense Department’s Gordon, for his part, said the task force evaluating base schools is looking “to ensure a way ahead to allow us to get to those schools in dire need now.” As for the plan to fix the military’s schools, he added, “we’ve got quite a commitment and, right now, our plan is to execute on that plan.”

For many military children, like 11-year-old Catie Hunter, such help would come too late. The fifth grader will be in eighth grade by 2014, the earliest date when her school is expected to be fixed.

Just now, Catie has two wishes — that her dad returns home safely, and that her school remains “still standing.”

Data editor David Donald, Berlin-based freelancer Jenny Hoff, and researchers Julian Hattem and Devorah Adler also contributed to this story. A version of this story appears in Newsweek magazine.

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Kristen Lombardi is the Columbia Journalism Investigations editor.