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Rules To Boost Private Schools' Chances Of Receiving Surplus Federal Properties

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Washington--Private schools will be able to compete on a more equal footing with public schools for access to surplus land or property being given away by the federal government, under rules expected to be issued this month by the Education Department.

The new rules will affect a little-known federal program under which 46 pieces of property worth $12 million have been conveyed to local and state agencies and governments for educational purposes in the past five years.

Established by the Congress in 1949 and run by the General Services Administration, the program allows local and state governments or their agencies, including school systems, to use surplus federal land and structures.

As long as the land or property is being used according to guidelines established upon receipt, and is not being used to generate revenue, the federal government charges little or nothing for its use. After 30 years, the agency or institution that was using the land or property assumes ownership of it, if it has not already bought the property outright.

One school system that has benefited from the program is the Gadsden district in Anthony, N.M., which a few years ago got four vacant buildings from a nearby military base for use as language-learning centers in the district's Chapter 1 program.

The surplus-property program also has helped establish university agricultural-research centers in the West by making thousands of acres available for farming, and has turned unused post offices and other buildings into city libraries.

When property becomes available under the program, applicants must show how their use of it would benefit the public good. If more than one agency or institution applies, each is graded on a 100-point scale to determine which will obtain use of the property.

Under the rules previously in effect, public schools started out with a 20-point advantage over any private school also applying for the property.

Private-school officials had complained about the preferential treatment of public schools, according to Education Department officials, who say their new regulations will even the playing field by dropping the 20-point bonus for public schools.

Officials note, however, that only a handful of properties become available each year, and competition for them is relatively uncommon.

In the 1990 fiscal year, a total of nine properties worth $3 million were turned over to local agencies for educational purposes.

David B. Hakola, who administers the education portion of the program for the Education Department's office of management services, said the new regulations also will make the program more "user friendly" by outlining a recipient's responsibilities from the time it assumes the property to the time the property is no longer in the program.

Before a property can be given away, however, a long process must be completed.

Once a federal agency decides it no longer needs a parcel of land or a building, it notifies the gsa, which then informs other federal agencies of the availability of the property.

If no other federal office is interested in buying the property and the gsa determines that it cannot be used to help the homeless, the agency can try to sell the property on the open market.

Alternatively, the gsa can declare the property "surplus" and determine suitable uses for it. The gsa then notifies such federal agencies as the departments of Education, Interior, and Health and Human Services, depending on the suitable uses.

Other than education, surplus property is also to be used under the law for purposes of health, recreation, wildlife conservation, housing, transportation, and preservation of historic monuments.

The federal agencies in turn notify local, county, and state agencies, which then competitively apply for use or purchase of the property. Education-related applicants must first win approval by the Education Department and then be granted use of the property by the gsa over competing uses.

The department or agency awarded the property must use it as intended in the application and is subject to yearly reviews and on-site inspections. The gsa may suspend a conveyance at any time if the receiving body is found not to be in compliance.

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