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New Principal, John Cosner and New Vice Principal Shelley MacKenzie discuss the future improvements to be implemented at Murray Middle School. / Laura Austin Photo

IWV and SSUSD benefit from Department of Defense grants

By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer

Over the past several years Sierra Sands Unified School District (SSUSD) has been awarded grants from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Office of Local Defense Community Construction (OLDCC) Public Schools on Military Installations (PSMI) program. “We have been fortunate to have received this PSMI grant for the construction of the new Murray Middle School and for some new construction and extensive modernization at Burroughs High School,” says Dr. Dave Ostash, Superintendent of SSUSD. “Now are moving into another phase where the district has been accepted for another PSMI grant to build an entirely new Richmond Elementary school which will go on some undisturbed property just outside the South Gate of the base.

“Now we have entered eligibility for a fourth PSMI grant to address capacity and conditions needs at Pierce Elementary School. Pierce School is now eligible for the next round of funding. We’re in the very early stages of submitting our initial grant application of what we see as the most feasible project. And currently, we see the most feasible project has been a new building. 

In the next few weeks we’re presenting our initial grant application, which is the scope of work which would include a new school build likely on the same property that Pierce currently exists, but then we’ll just have to see where that goes.”

Planning and submitting grant applications is a cooperative effort. “It is a collaboration with the school district and the command at NAWS China Lake. A really important piece of the puzzle in being successful is collaborating with NAWS.” There is an excellent working relationship with Captain Vaughn and his team assuring that “our proposal reflects the needs of the military and military connected students here in the Indian Wells Valley. Captain Vaughn and his team and my team traveled together to Virginia in the early part of June to meet with the federal team to have our initial meeting and orientation for the Pierce eligibility project.”

The scope of the Pierce Elementary School PSMI project is yet to be determined. 

PSMI started about 20 years ago. “Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was visiting with a group of parents at a school in the Midwest. He was holding roundtable conversations with military and military connected families. He walked away from the visit struck by some input that he was given. There were some parents who were very persuasive about some concerns they had about the condition and the capacity and the quality of the facilities in the schools where their children were going to school. 

“Gates took that input very seriously. He went back to the Pentagon and he tasked his team with basically studying the issue very carefully, getting a better understanding of how many schools the United States are housed on either military installations or on military land. The results of that study ended up in a whole new program which is the PSMI program. 

“This is an act of Congress; it’s a congressional  funded program. They enlisted a  company that went around to every school in the nation that had schools on a military installation, and they evaluated  the capacity and the conditions of the school. This resulted in a list in rank order of who had the most severe needs. The program was born, and the money was budgeted, and each year there’s a new amount that’s budgeted into the pot. The goal of the program is to get to the end of the list to make sure that the nation’s military and military connected families are assured that they get to attend school with world class facilities and opportunities to support their education.”

Naval Air Station China Lake had five schools on the list of about 170 schools. When the list was updated in 2018, Murray was number four, Burroughs was ten, Richmond was 37 and Pierce was number 57. Vieweg is on the list but in 2018 was considered not applicable because it was not considered an open school. There are plans to modify that status once the Pierce Project is complete. “We’ll probably need to put Pierce Elementary School in Vieweg for swing space.  At the conclusion of that, we really need to think about how we organize ourselves as a district so that Vieweg becomes a permanently used school.” That would enable Vieweg to become eligible for a PSMI grant.

The grants are 80% grants with a 20% local match with district funds. “We have benefited tremendously from it,” says Ostash. “The combined value of the grants for the projects for the Murray and Burroughs is a little over $70 million. The Richmond project is now coming in north of $80 million and then it remains to be seen what we qualify for and what the Pierce project will be.

“This is a significant program for us. We’re grateful for all the advocacy. We’re grateful to Congressman McCarthy who from the very beginning of the process was a staunch supporter and advocate for the PSMI program. 

“Our student population is pretty unique relative to other bases because the highest percentage of our student population is connected through a civilian. It’s a Civil Service connection. We have been fortunate that the funding extends not just to military connected, but also connected to the Department of Defense and the civilian employees. So that’s been helpful because a relatively small percentage of our students are military connected. But a relatively high percentage of our students is DOD connected.”