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State Journal: Track flak; Jackass valuation

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A Massachusetts proposal to provide state funding for a high-school track-and-field facility in Boston is stirring up some caustic political debate.

At issue is a plan, with a cost currently estimated at $35 million, to build a track and a three-story gym at Northeastern University for use in statewide competitions.

First suggested in the 1950's, the project was authorized under former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis. The House recently agreed to include funding for it in the 1993 budget.

Gov. William F. Weld and Republican legislators oppose the current plan, however. Officials estimate that a less elaborate facility could be built for only about $9 million.

A G.O.P. leader has described the project as a "sweetheart deal,'' and some have suggested privately that Mr. Dukakis's current teaching position at the university may have been a reward for his support of the project--a charge the former Governor denies.

In an indication of the strong feelings created by the controversy, Mr. Dukakis recently allowed himself to be quoted in The Boston Globe making a scatological remark about the urgent need for the Weld administration to act.

Even so, a compromise is possible. Mayor Raymond L. Flynn this month said he was willing to negotiate on the issue, and aides have hinted that an accord could be reached on a less expensive facility.

One of the perennial conundrums of Vermont education has been a heavy reliance on local school funding. The state combines an above-average dependence on local property taxes with one of the nation's highest ratios of school spending to personal income.

The result has been that many small communities feel severely burdened in paying for their schools. The strain has been worst on residents of modest incomes whose real estate has been pushed up in value by the state's appeal to wealthy, out-of-state vacationers.

But Vermont leaders appear ready for a new assault on the problem. Gov. Howard B. Dean has appointed a commission on the issue, which began work this month in Montpelier.

Panelists heard from Deborah Brighton, a tax consultant, on the history of Vermont's tax-assessment system.

Ms. Brighton noted that in the state's early years assessors would levy taxes not just on land but also on a wide variety of other property, from a family's woodpile to a professional's skill and experience.

"On the low end, a lawyer's brainpower was equal in value to one-tenth of a jackass,'' she said. "On the high end it was 7.5 jackasses.''--H.D.

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