Two soldiers move out of a building during a training exercise at Fort Bliss, Texas. Maj. Joe Buccino, Fort Bliss' spokesman, says there is the idea among many members of the Army that El Paso is a boring, crime-ridden town with really bad schools. He said that neither of those things are true. (Juan Carlos Llorca/AP)
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FORT BLISS, TEXAS — A West Texas Army post wants El Paso’s help in combatting a negative perception of the city that’s deterring top military talent from seeking an assignment here.
Before coming to El Paso, soldiers “think schools are terrible, that there is a lot of crime, that it’s just desert,” Fort Bliss spokesman Maj. Joe Buccino told The Associated Press. “The school district should advertise it better, local businesses should advertise it better.”
And that is going to be one of the main points Fort Bliss’ commander, Maj. Gen. Sean MacFarland, drives home Thursday when he delivers his “state of the military” address before business and political leaders as well as hundreds of city residents. The post has sold about 900 tickets to the luncheon event.
“This event represents the first opportunity for Maj. Gen. MacFarland to share with the community his vision of Fort Bliss’ partnership with El Paso,” Buccino said. MacFarland became commanding officer in May and this will be the first time he delivers a major address to El Paso residents.
The city for years has battled an image problem largely stemming from the violence in neighboring Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, just across the Rio Grande. As Ciudad Juarez took on the infamous title of deadliest city in the hemisphere, El Paso officials have taken every available opportunity to remind people that their city has the lowest crime rate for any U.S. city with a population of more than 500,000, according to the annual City Crime Rankings by CQ Press, a research publishing firm.
For instance, El Paso recorded 16 murders in 2011 and just five in 2010. By comparison, Detroit had 344 in 2011 and just over 300 the year before. When it comes to assaults, El Paso averaged about 2,180 annually in recent years, a number that’s also an improvement over similarly sized cities.
But the city’s reputation also has taken a hit because of problems with El Paso schools.
The El Paso Independent School District saw its superintendent sentenced to 3½ years in federal prison for masterminding a district-wide cheating scheme to fraudulently improve standardized test scores in order to secure performance bonuses.
Lorenzo Garcia’s actions caused the district’s rating to improve from “academically acceptable” in 2005 to “recognized” in 2010 — the second-highest rating possible. The Texas Education Agency later placed the district on probation and replaced the board of trustees with a board of managers, one of the last resources before shutting down a district.
“I guess we could do more marketing,” said Jim Steinhauser, assistant superintendent for research and evaluation for the district. “Parents should be able to look at a district and learn what is available and we are not advertising it very well.”
“But as far as the schools not being good, that is not true,” Steinhauser said. The district has advanced placement courses, an international baccalaureates program and its students can take early college classes in high school. “People need to realize that in public schools, you can go and get a bad education or a very good education, it’s up to you.”
Renee DeSantos, spokeswoman for the school district, said that it “has strengthened policies and procedures to ensure that the illegal actions of the past do not happen again. The board of managers also is working diligently to hire a new leader for the district. EPISD is not the same place it was two years ago.”
DeSantos said more than 6,000 students, about 10 percent of the district’s enrollment, are from military families and that in many of the schools there are liaisons to help them transition into the district. “EPISD has cultivated a strong relationship with the Fort Bliss command and the School Liaison Office to ensure we meet the growing needs of the military population in our community.”
Veronica Castro, El Paso Director of Tourism at the Conventions and Visitors Bureau, said they “definitely agree with Fort Bliss officials that people have misperceptions.”
She said they are addressing the problem through a group of more than 40 community leaders and business owners and have hired a local advertising agency and New-York-based PR firm to enhance El Paso’s image on a national level.
As part of an effort to give El Paso a face lift, the city tore town its city hall building to build a new Triple-A baseball stadium in hopes of boosting commerce downtown. The Conventions and Visitors Bureau recently launched the “It’s all good” campaign with billboards placed around the city to remind locals about good things in town.
Buccino said that there are other perceptions about the post they’ve been trying to change. “It’s the place to be if you want to train, deploy and advance in your career,” he said.
He explained that officers graduating from West Point or other military programs complete a preference sheet listing their top five choices for their first assignment. An assignment is decided based on an officer’s request and the needs of the Army. Fort Bliss often does not appear among the top preferences.
But the post has experienced rapid growth in the recent past due to the relocation of the 1st Armored Division to U.S. soil after 40 years in Germany.
Also, Fort Bliss has one of the largest training areas of any military installation in the U.S., it has the largest continuous air space and virtual training facilities, Buccino added. “We have mountainous terrain, desert, vegetation, urban warfare villages. We can do joint integrated fires because of the partnership with Holloman Air Force Base.”
“We want this to be the new Fort Bragg,” Buccino said, referring to the North Carolina home of the 82nd Airborne and Army Special Ops as well as the Army Forces Command. “You can do more here than you can do at Fort Bragg.”