FORT RILEY — Defense Secretary Robert Gates broke ground Thursday on an elementary school at Fort Riley, the first step in addressing 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 project at Fort Riley.
The secretary, who met with soldiers and spouses before 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 commemorative coins with his office and Department of Defense insignia to the children. The students will be among the first kindergartners to attend the school when it opens in 2012.
Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran said the money for the school was redirected 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 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 moving the 1st Infantry Division headquarters from Germany to Fort Riley. The move increased the post's soldier population from 10,000 in 2006 to more than 18,000.
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 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 at Fort Riley.
Brooks estimated that the on-post soldier presence could exceed 14,000 by year's end, a figure not seen since 1994.
Gates said the department had identified Fort Riley as having the most severe school problem in the military and put it at the top of the list to be addressed.
"Today we mark a major step forward in solving school overcrowding," Gates said.
He said there were 150 schools on military installations across the country with needs, but most school districts lack the ability to raise money 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.