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Wilder Drops Repeal of Tax on Drugs To Fund Poor Districts

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Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia has backed off one of his pet projects in order to help fund an $80-million package of additional aid to school districts in poor communities.

The legislature this month agreed on a two-year, $28-billion budget that includes the extra money to address school-funding disparities.

Mr. Wilder's original budget proposal did not include any added funds for poor schools. But he agreed this month to provide some of the additional money by temporarily delaying a scheduled repeal of the sales tax on nonprescription drugs. The repeal had been a centerpiece of Mr. Wilder's tenure as Governor.

The Governor's action freed up about $31 million. The rest of the $80 million will come from a variety of sources, including money from accounting changes in the state retirement fund.

The package provides about $46 million for districts with the highest concentrations of at-risk students, as determined by free-lunch eligibility, and $23 million to maintain school buildings. Another $8 million will go to districts with falling enrollments.

"The ones that are suffering the most get more of the money,'' said Senator Stanley C. Walker, a Norfolk Democrat who helped negotiate the budget deal. Norfolk, one of the state's poorest cities, would receive the biggest chunk of new money, $7.4 million.

Challenge Still Possible

"You're talking about a first step here with this budget,'' Mr. Walker, the president pro tem of the Senate, said. "It certainly indicates a willingness and commitment on the part of Virginia to narrow the disparity gap.''

Even as a first step, however, the funding package appears unlikely to placate a coalition of poor, mostly rural districts that had sued the state last year. The Coalition for Equity in Educational Funding withdrew its school-finance suit earlier this year to give lawmakers a chance to deal with the equity issue, but reserved the right to refile.

"The efforts for at-risk students are worthwhile,'' said Kenneth Walker, the superintendent of schools in Halifax County and the chairman of the coalition. "But they don't deal with the disparities that are inherent in the state's funding system.''

Mr. Walker said the coalition will analyze the legislature's plan before deciding how to proceed.

Although poor urban areas will receive the biggest portions of extra aid, some of the money targeted at at-risk students will go to rural districts. Funding for districts with declining enrollments also will primarily help rural areas.

A commission studying possible changes in the finance formula is scheduled to finish its work in time for Mr. Wilder to issue specific recommendations for the 1993 legislative session.

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