Dimon Kendrick-Holmes commentary: BRAC brings growth to metro Columbus, but not to the Muscogee County School District

dkholmes@ledger-enquirer.comMay 17, 2013 

Anybody remember the 5th Brigade, 25th Infantry?

I thought of it on Wednesday night when the bomb dropped.

The bomb was Myles Caggins, chief of operations and facilities for the Muscogee County School District, telling a crowd at a public hearing that the district must close not two schools, but six.

That's a far cry from what the district was saying nine years ago.

In the summer of 2004, the U.S. government announced it was moving overseas combat brigades back to the States, and Fort Benning appeared slated to get the 5th Brigade, 25th Infantry.

We were going to add, when you added up dependents, a city the size of LaGrange to our ranks.

Our ship had come in. Or our Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Or whatever.

Columbus was abuzz, and we started getting ready. Builders planned for more than 3,000 new homes or apartments. And John Phillips -- the Muscogee County superintendent then, now and apparently forever -- planned for 3,800 school-aged children and the schools to accommodate them.

Then came May 13, 2005, the final decision on Base Realignment and Closure, and a surprise that seemed nice: Fort Benning was getting the Armor School from Fort Knox.

But wait, there was more: The 5th of the 25th Infantry was going somewhere else.

We'd started building and planning, but suddenly we needed to do some more math. Instead of 3,400 soldiers, we'd be getting 1,500 permanent cadre and a whole bunch of guys on temporary duty.

Phillips changed his estimate from 3,800 to 1,450 new students in Muscogee County.

Biff Hadden, then the senior vice president for military affairs at the Greater Columbus Georgia Chamber of Commerce, questioned the construction strategy in Columbus.

"What the soldiers can afford and what we're building is not necessarily the same," he said in July 2005. "Keeping that in mind is very important."

Phillips started flying to Washington, D.C., with Caggins and then-deputy superintendent Robin Pennock to try to secure federal funding to expand schools.

Somehow, the estimates began to rise.

In 2007, the school district had about 33,000 students and was estimating that by the year 2013 it would have an additional 12,000 new students, with about 5,000 of them coming from BRAC. If it didn't get any more schools, 22 percent of all Muscogee County students would be in portable classrooms.

In 2008, Phillips raised the estimate of school-aged BRAC children to 6,000.

It's now 2013, and the metro Columbus area has grown by nearly 16,000 people, thanks largely to BRAC and the Armor School's move to Fort Benning, which was completed in September 2011.

But the metro Columbus area includes Chattahoochee County, the nation's No. 1 fastest growing county, and Russell County, the nation's No. 9 fastest growing county.

In fact, nearly a third of the growth in metro Columbus occurred in Fort Mitchell, Ala., where you can buy a gigantic family home for a low price. Biff Hadden, a retired colonel, is looking like a prophet about now.

And Phillips and the Muscogee County School District?

Not so much.

According to its website, the district today has -- drum roll, please -- 33,000 students. So nothing's changed.

And to make matters worse, the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division -- the combat brigade we had when all this BRAC talk began -- may be going away.

What in the world happened?

Dimon Kendrick-Holmes, executive editor, can be reached at dkholmes@ledger-enquirer.com.

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