02/28/10 — Before the next BRAC

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Before the next BRAC

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on February 28, 2010 8:12 AM

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Cars pass through the main gate at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base Saturday afternoon. Local officials are looking ahead and preparing before the Base Realignment and Closure Commission returns to evaluate the base at some undetermined point in the future to do their best to be sure SJAFB does not make the next BRAC list.

The most formidable acronym in Wayne County still lingers in the minds of local leaders who know its return is inevitable.                     To them, BRAC means far more than Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

It represents their greatest fear: That Seymour Johnson Air Force Base could one day be closed.

So five years after a community learned that its economic pillar would be spared by the federal government, those closest to that process are looking ahead to the commission's return -- an event most expect to occur around 2015.

And they try to make sense of what was learned during the last round of base closures -- and just what needs to change locally before BRAC comes back.

Goldsboro Mayor and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Al King was among those heavily involved in a process he characterized as grueling and tough.

And while he acknowledges that many positive things came out of BRAC 2005 -- Seymour Johnson gained eight more KC-135R Stratotankers for its Reserve wing and an engine repair facility for its F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jet fleet and local leaders fostered relationships with military contacts in Washington -- he is still wary about speaking on the future of the installation as though its existence here a decade from now is a certainty.

"I think we have developed a tremendous reputation for base and community relations. It's one of the best in the country, if not the best, and that will serve us well," he said. "But we can't lighten up and say, 'OK we're there.' We have got to continue to ensure that we review everything that the BRAC committee is concerned about in our community."

Among those concerns was the issue of encroachment.

"We know that if we allow certain things to happen to Seymour Johnson, like, for example, encroaching the runway, they won't be able to train," King said. "That would be very critical, very serious. If we allow that air space to be encroached, you can kiss Seymour Johnson goodbye."

And if heavy development were allowed close to the installation, the consequences, he added, would be severe.

But those issues, thanks to changes in policy on both the city and county's end, are not what concern Goldsboro's mayor -- the county approved new zoning and development rules to restrict development and the City Council also toughened its zoning around the base.

The most pressing local issue -- the one he says will do the most damage should BRAC return -- is the perception of, and reality inside -- Goldsboro High School.

"The other issues are being dealt with, but BRAC is coming. There's no question. I don't know exactly when, but I know it's coming. So soon, they will be breathing down our necks again," King said. "Don't fool yourself. They know what those few problems are. They keep tabs on it. And I guarantee one of those problems is Goldsboro High School."

A sub-par graduation rate and reputation, King said, has transformed a once-glorified school into a town concern -- one that limits the potential for economic growth in the area and will stick out as one of the lone sore thumbs in the region should BRAC be reconvened.

"I know because I meet with (leaders from companies thinking about locating in Wayne County) and they will tell me, 'We like Goldsboro. We like everything we see.' But they have told me off the record that, 'We have a problem bringing our executives and our employees in with the way the school system is,'" he said. "They tell me this. I know it."

But it's problem, the mayor added, that many in a position to improve conditions there ignore.

He recalls a meeting he had with a member of the county school board, one he said he called for to "sort of lay it on the line."

"We presented the problem Goldsboro High School is presenting, both in perception and reality. It is an issue, and that board member looked at me and said, 'Well. I don't think it's an issue for the base.' I said, 'Where have you been? Of course it is,'" King said. "I said, 'They will not come to you and complain to you about your school system because that is not what they do. I know. I've talked to them privately. I know it's an issue.' I told him, 'You can sit there with your head buried in the sand all you want to, but it's an issue.'"

It has been years since that conversation took place.

But King said little has been done since to address Goldsboro High as it relates to future base closures.

"For some reason, the Board of Education just doesn't understand how serious the Goldsboro High issue is and how it impacts Wayne County, Goldsboro, this whole region," he said. "I don't really think they get it. It's the most difficult issue facing us today as far as BRAC."

Gov. Beverly Perdue also spoke recently about the need to improve the Wayne County Public Schools system -- particularly Goldsboro High School, which she said has been identified as a "turnaround school" by the state -- but said those improvements are not simply for the benefit of Seymour Johnson.

She, like King, is also worried that it could cost the region in areas like economic development.

"Any school who is involved in those turnaround processes must improve. They don't have a choice. I want to see that high school improve dramatically," Perdue said. "Not just because of BRAC, but because of the lifeblood of Wayne County. You're not going to be able to recruit industry or jobs there for very long, apart from the base, if you don't have a really good public schools system. So it's incumbent upon all of us, parents and businesses, to get in there and fix it.

"Do I believe it will be fixed within five years? Yes," the governor added. "It may not have 100 percent graduation rate, but with the state's turnaround team in there, you should see some differences being made right now."

School Board chairman Rick Pridgen disagrees with both King and Gov. Perdue.

He said progress is being made at Goldsboro High, but that even if it weren't, he did not believe the state of the school would have any bearing on BRAC.

And he dismissed the notion that the school has hurt the county's development efforts.

"I have not heard any negative comments whatsoever from the military about the education the military child is getting, and I've never heard of any industry that has said they don't want to come to Goldsboro because of our schools," Pridgen said. "That couldn't be farther from the truth. ... I find that very difficult to believe. I think you have got more of a public perception problem than anything."

It's an argument King said he has heard before.

"The schools will be a factor. There's no question. It's one of the most serious issues that I am aware of," he said. "But I don't think the Board of Education gets it. So we need to reach them. We need them to understand. It just makes no sense to me that a school system would allow this. What do you mean there is nothing we can do about (Goldsboro High School)? There is something we can do about it but we have to have the will to do it."

Whether or not the state of Goldsboro High will factor into future base closures remains a highly debated topic.

But few will argue about just how important the existence of Seymour Johnson is to the city, county and region it calls home.

For King, the economic advantages that come with housing the installation and those who make its mission possible are clear.

"We're in one of the worst economic downturns we have had and ... my friends west, man, their unemployment has gone through the roof. They are really having really serious problems. But here in Goldsboro, we have been spared the brunt of this thing," he said. "The Real Estate agents are telling me they are still selling houses. And why is that? Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. These people live all over our county.

"And wherever you go, whether it's a restaurant or Sam's, you're going to see these airmen there. The economic impact that they make on our community is absolutely unbelievable. Without them, we would be in big trouble today."

And airmen bring more than dollars spent at local businesses, he added.

They become an essential part of the communities outside the base gates.

"Another area people don't understand is the number of hours those airmen volunteer. I attend all of these functions and everywhere I go ... military people are out there in the community volunteering," King said. "That's another thing they bring to the table."

The governor agrees.

"More than just leading BRAC the last two go-arounds, I happen to live in a base community, so you don't have to talk to me about how important Seymour Johnson is to Goldsboro because it's equally important to the whole eastern region," Gov. Perdue said. "I believe, finally, the state has come to understand that (the military) is a core part of our successful economic development platform."

So as long as she is in office, one of her focuses will be on retaining the major Army, Marine and Air Force installations that currently call North Carolina home.

And for Goldsboro, that will mean more work toward improving graduation rates at the high school most-associated -- because of its name -- with the area.

But Gov. Perdue said, Wayne County is not alone in its need to address some issues with education.

"There is a problem statewide, not just in Wayne County or at Goldsboro High, with graduation rates. You take an average class of ninth-graders and know that if nothing changes, we're going to write off 30 percent of them. They are going to drop out. They are doomed to a lifetime of poverty and trying to find jobs ... so the whole concept of raising graduation rates is critical to me," Gov. Perdue said. "The world has changed so much. ... The learning standards are so much different than they were when I was a teacher. Do I think that parental involvement or church involvement or business involvement make a difference? Yes. But I also think regardless of where a child is enrolled, that child deserves the privileged of having a free and equal basic education given to him or her by really high-quality teachers and principals."

Pridgen said that is already the case for children in the Wayne County Public Schools system -- even at Goldsboro High.

"The scores are what they are. They do speak for themselves. But at the same time, our board is constantly being proactive to try and do something to change that. As far as Goldsboro is concerned, we are not sitting idly as some people would tend to think that we are. We are constantly making changes, on a monthly basis, as we see things we need to address. We have even put a second principal in there," he said. "We have been doing a tremendous amount of different things ... at Goldsboro High School designed to improve the school. You can take somebody by the hand and you can lead them and show them what we're doing in the schools. But if they still go out and talk about you, you know, you can't do anything to stop that.

"And unfortunately the students and the faculty at Goldsboro High School, they get a real bad rap on that kind of stuff. Do we need improvement there? Yes, we need improvement there. But we are trying everything possible ... to do that. You can't snap your fingers and see an ideal change in Goldsboro overnight. But when I look back ... I have seen an improvement, a drastic improvement at GHS every year I have been on the board."