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State Journal: Pins and needles; Persistent politics

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In the course of reforming Texas's school-finance system this spring, the state legislature abolished Chapter 18, a section of existing law authorizing county school systems.

The action, part of an effort to create a new structure of county taxing authorities, was hardly noticed amid a bruising political battle over the redistribution of school funds.

Unfortunately, it was not until the deed was done that anyone noticed that the death of Chapter 18 had knocked the legal legs out from under the Dallas and Harris (Houston) County school systems.

The two systems are independent public agencies that contract to provide services to districts within their borders.

The Dallas system, for example, buses some 45,000 students each day and offers a media library and on-call psychologists to many of the 15 districts in the county.

As a result of the reform law, however, the Dallas system will go out of business in September, leaving the Dallas school district alone with an estimated $10 million cost to set up its own busing program.

Lawmakers are moving quickly to rectify their error. But it has not been an easy month for officials of either the Dallas system or the districts they serve.

"I can't say the panic is over yet," said Deanne T. Hullender, a spokesman for the county system. "Some of these districts are still on pins and needles."

As seems to be often happening to good ideas in many states these days, Alaska's effort to reform its method of funding school construction is coming under pressure as a result of a shortage of money.

Until 1990, the Last Frontier had a system under which the state reimbursed districts for roughly 75 percent of the cost of issuing construction bonds.

That method gave the state no control over its construction spending, however, and left very poor districts still unable to afford new buildings.

Lawmakers last year decided to provide full state funding for projects, and set up a list of priorities to determine which ones would get aid.

This year, districts submitted requests for 145 facilities with a total cost of $295 million. But Gov. Walter J. Hickel requested only $25 million, enough for 7 projects, while the Senate is calling for $36 million for 12.

Frustrated by that gap, two lawmakers have introduced a bill to chuck the new system and return to the old funding method.

"It was supposed to take politics out of funding schools," Representative Pat Carney was quoted as saying. "Some of us said that wouldn't happen, and as it turned out that didn't happen."--hd

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