By Vince Little
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District Public Affairs
Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Europe and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Europe District are engaged in a robust military construction program designed to revitalize dilapidated schoolhouses, some of which were built in the post-World War II era.
It’s part of a multibillion-dollar effort by the Department of Defense Education Activity, or DODEA, to replace or renovate more than 130 schools worldwide based on age or failing conditions. The vision is to align 21st-century instruction and learning concepts with state-of-the-art facilities that maximize energy and sustainability features while giving military children the best possible opportunities during their intellectual growth, officials say.
Units, agencies and organizations throughout the DOD face rapidly changing strategic and fiscal realities. However, the need for new schools at a time of budget uncertainty boils down to upkeep, said Jose Tovar, the Defense Dependents Schools, or DODDS-Europe facilities manager.
“Maintenance requires a lot of investment — many of our assets date to the 1940s and ‘50s. The infrastructure has deteriorated, and costs are high,” he said. “Broken walls, chipped paint, aging classrooms, and old heating and cooling systems are not conducive to good learning environments. It’s more cost effective to replace it than fix it.”
In 2008, DODEA submitted a report to Congress on the condition of its facilities worldwide. Tovar said DODEA now conducts those assessments every three years, and they serve as the basis for what’s being done to refurbish old schools or build new ones.
The DODEA military construction initiative began in October 2010, and is expected to run through fiscal year 2019. Europe’s portion includes more than 40 projects worth $1.8 billion in Germany, Belgium, the United Kingdom and Turkey, according to Lisa Bobotas, the DODDS program manager for USACE-Europe District.
In November, ground was broken on a new elementary and high school complex at Panzer Local Training Area near Stuttgart, as well as a project that will expand the middle and high schools in Ansbach. Work is scheduled to begin this spring on an addition to Netzaberg Middle School in Grafenwöhr.
The centerpiece event in 2014 will be the unveiling of three DODDS-Europe schools on the NATO base at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Belgium. The American elementary and middle schools are expected to open by the start of next school year, while the high school should be finished by sometime the following winter.
“The SHAPE schools have traditional designs,” Tovar said, “but every bit of those buildings will be used for learning. We don’t have any wasted space.”
All future DODDS-Europe projects are subject to shifting priorities, so funding levels could fluctuate, he added. The Office of the Secretary of Defense is set to release its European Infrastructure Consolidation, or EIC, study, in March.
Bob Purtiman, a DODDS-Europe spokesman, said the U.S. student population sat at about 40,000, in 2008. Today, that figure is down to 30,000.
“The EIC will give us some clarity,” Tovar said. “It looks at where our assets can be consolidated. We’ll know where the troops are going to be, and in turn, where our students need to be. We’re in a tight budget environment. Our focus will remain on enduring locations that have been identified in Europe.”
Other projects already funded in fiscal year 2014 include Hainerberg Elementary, Wiesbaden Middle School, Kaiserslautern Elementary and Ramstein High School in Germany, along with Lakenheath High School in England.
“These communities will be getting some quality schools for minimal investment,” Bobotas said. “These buildings are ideally suited for a life span of 50 years. They’re also conducive to the presidentially mandated STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] program. [But] doing this right and economically are the most important things.”
DODEA’s construction and renovation program will ultimately result in the replacement or overhaul of more than 70 percent of its 194 schools. Major projects normally require five years to complete as the steps encompass proposal, approval, funding, planning, design and construction.
Tovar said the organization also is moving toward a “21st Century Teaching and Learning” model that is more than just facility design. Current schools don’t inhibit this transition from happening, but new facilities will significantly simplify and ease the change in focus from teacher-centered to student-centered education.
With the exception of SHAPE and the two Stuttgart facilities, all the replacement projects in Europe are being engineered around the “21st-century” concepts, he added. Planners will maximize resources and look toward the future of teaching and learning to determine how the buildings can accommodate the technology, refined curriculum and innovation that will occur in classrooms.
DODDS-Europe and USACE officials say the new schools incorporate many energy-saving and sustainability features aimed at increasing durability and reducing taxpayer expense. Among them is the use of natural lighting, solar panels, “green” roofs, rainwater harvesting, low-flow faucets and fixtures, and sophisticated heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.
“Our repair costs will go down,” Tovar said. “In the long run, the energy savings should be significant.”