Fort Riley — Defense Secretary Robert Gates broke ground Thursday on an elementary school at Fort Riley, the first step in what he sees as a compelling need across the military.
Gates, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Maj. Gen. Vincent Brooks stood behind a group of preschool children as they turned dirt in a ceremonial box to mark the $30 million education expenditure at Fort Riley.
The secretary, who met with soldiers and spouses prior to the event, recalled during the groundbreaking that education was a major concern expressed to him in 2010 when he held a similar gathering on the 18,000-soldier post.
"Thanks to their honesty and directness, I heard firsthand about the deficiencies in the public school facilities. I made a commitment to those spouses to address these problems," Gates said. "Today I deliver on that commitment."
Later he gave special commemorative coins with his office and Department of Defense insignia to the children. The students will be among the first kindergarteners to attend the school when it opens in 2012.
Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran said the money for the school was reprogrammed from within the defense budget. Another $250 million has been dedicated to improving military schools throughout the United States. The Geary County school district, which operates five elementary schools and one middle school on Fort Riley, is applying for part of those new funds to build a new middle school.
The soldier and family population at Fort Riley has mushroomed since the Pentagon announced in 2005 that it was relocating the 1st Infantry Division headquarters to Fort Riley from Germany. The move increased the post's soldier population from 10,000 in 2006 to more than 18,000 presently.
That increase has strained the school system, which has 2,500 students in class on Fort Riley, or about 35 percent more than capacity. More students are likely to arrive in the coming months as the pace of deployments wane and more soldiers and families are able to reside in Kansas.
Moran, a Republican in his first term, said more was needed from all levels of government to improve the health care, education, employment and quality of life of soldiers and their families serving at Fort Riley.
Brooks estimated that the on-post soldier presence could exceed 14,000 by year's end, a figure not seen since at least 1994.
Staff Sgt. Tara Flournoy, whose son Jaheim was among those children breaking the ground, said education was a concern among Fort Riley soldiers and families as it relates to quality of life in the military. Families are looking forward to seeing class sizes reduced and more space for the children.
"It's very serious," Flournoy said.
Gates said the department had identified Fort Riley as the most severe school problem in the military and put it at the top of the list for being addressed.
"Today we mark a major step forward in solving school overcrowding. A problem that had become a major retention issue with the division, which was on its fourth deployment since 2003," Gates said.
He said there were some 150 schools on military installations across the country with needs, but most school districts lack the ability to raise revenue to correct the problem.
"While local school districts should and will remain ultimately responsible for their public school facilities located on military installations, the Department of Defense will always remain ready to intervene when it has the ability to improve the educational opportunities of our military children," Gates said.