If the quality of area's schools doesn't improve, could Maxwell AFB take off?
By KRISTA JOHNSON | Montgomery Advertiser | Published: October 14, 2020
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — Military, education, city, county and business leaders gathered in front of the Maxwell Air Force Base main gate Wednesday to stress the importance the base has to Montgomery's success, and how dependent its future is on the Montgomery Public School system.
There is a connection between military readiness and quality education opportunities around a base, said Gen. Trent Edwards, a former 42nd Air Base Wing Commander at Maxwell.
If the Montgomery County school system does not improve, the missions of Maxwell and Gunter could be reduced or relocated, he said. That potential loss would strip nearly 13,000 jobs attached to the base, as well as its the $2.6 billion annual economic impact — the largest of any industry in the River Region.
The gathering comes following a new internal military report card focused on the support of military families, and ahead of a proposed property tax increase to better fund MPS.
With the report ranking the community by two categories — one focused on military students and the other on spouses — Maxwell ranked 150 out of 154 Air Force installations for public education support.
The districts around the base included in the report fell into the bottom 33rd percentile for academic performance and school climate. Only the pre-K availability and student to nurse ratio ranked well.
Aside from MPS, Autauga, Elmore, Lowndes, Macon, Tallapoosa counties and Tallapoosa City systems were included in the report card.
The ranking is especially troublesome given that the secretaries of the Army, Air Force and Navy announced in 2018 that a community's support of military families will now be a major factor in the decision to relocate or close bases.
Since that report, Maxwell leaders have became vocal about how the lack of quality education opportunities for military children in Alabama's capital make the base's mission harder to fulfill.
In August 2018, former Air University Commander Anthony Cotton explained to a group of education and business leaders that more than half the airmen coming to Montgomery do so without their families, and faculty members show reluctance to accept positions at the highly regarded base because of the area's public schools.
"The reality is, 'If my kids aren't happy, I'm not happy. If I have to try to spend so much time trying to understand how to get them ready and prepared for secondary education, then I'm not doing my mission as far as taking care of you, and making sure that I protect our country'," Cotton had said.
Since then, Maxwell formed a public education-focused working group and implemented several changes geared toward expanding education opportunities for military families.
The changes have included opening the base K-8 school enrollment to families living in the Maxwell FamCamp and changing Pike Road's separation clause with MPS to allow military students living on base to attend Pike Road Schools.
Gen. Edwards said currently Maxwell leaders are working with the federal government in hopes of gaining approval to open Maxwell's school to military children who don't live on base.
With about 4,000 military children in the area, these changes do not negate the importance of improving MPS, though.
Pointing to the words across Maxwell's gate — "The intellectual and leadership development center of the Air and Space Forces" — Edwards applauded the Air Force's dedication to investing in its airmen.
But, he said, "We do not invest the bare minimum and expect the best results."
He, alongside Mayor Steven Reed, MPS Superintendent Ann Roy Moore and County Commissioner Doug Singleton urged residents to vote in support of the proposed property tax increase on Nov. 3.
"The stakes have never been higher for the community," Reed said, adding that the economic impact Maxwell provides cannot be replicated.
"It is up to us to provide the quality of place and quality of education that they deserve," he said of the military families serving the country.
Looking at the districts in Auburn, Hoover, Madison and Pike Road, Reed pointed to their much higher levels of local funding for public schools than what Montgomery property owners provide.
More than just the need to better serve military families, he said a good education will improve the quality of life for all Montgomerians', allowing the city to retain the best and brightest who are from here.
The additional $33 million in annual funding MPS is seeking, he said, "can provide all of the things our students desperately deserve. ... "Education changes outcomes, it changes families."
"It's time to put our money where our mouth is," Reed said.