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Clinton Announces Plan To Ease Local Building Debts

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President Clinton announced a White House initiative intended to spur improvements in worn school facilities--a program that appears likely to yield political rewards for the president before it benefits schoolchildren.

The proposed $5 billion over four years would be used to help pay some interest on school repairs, renovation, and construction, essentially offsetting loan rates for schools by as much as half.

Administration officials portrayed the initiative as a response to recent General Accounting Office reports on the poor condition of the nation's school buildings. (See "States Do Not Spend Enough To Fix, Build Schools, Report Says," Jan. 10, 1996.)

But the White House does not have legislation ready, and officials acknowledged that the proposal would likely not receive serious Congressional consideration this year.

The construction plan unveiled last month joins a host of other recent White House announcements relating to schools and youths. The proposals have been a prominent part of Mr. Clinton's re-election campaign.

Proposing money for school buildings "has to do with priorities," Laura D'Andrea Tyson, the president's national economic adviser, told reporters. "The president's commitment to education [is] a key priority that defines his administration both in terms of values and in terms of economic-growth strategy and in terms of economic-opportunity strategy."

Republicans responded to the plan by pointing out that Mr. Clinton signed legislation last year rescinding $65 million of the $100 million Congress had appropriated in fiscal 1995 for school construction, and that he had proposed a fiscal 1996 budget with no money for school construction.

"When it comes to school funding, Bill Clinton has more ups and downs than a playground teeter-totter," Christina Martin, the deputy press secretary for former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, Mr. Clinton's presumptive GOP opponent, said in a statement.

Positive Reactions

Under the construction initiative, districts would be eligible for funding that would cover up to half the cost of interest for building and renovation loans.

The administration has based the initiative on an estimate that most school renovation and construction is financed through tax-exempt bonds with interest rates of about 6 percent.

The program would be limited to four years and would be financed by the sale of broadcasting rights.

States would administer most of the interest credits. The 100 poorest urban districts plus 25 other districts deemed to have "exceptional needs" by the Department of Education could apply directly to the federal government.

Some school officials liked the sound of the proposal.

St. Louis is in the process of a $377 million school renovation and construction project but still needs help underwriting upgrades to furnaces, air conditioning systems, and energy controls, said Charles Burgess, the district's public-affairs director.

In Norfolk, Va., the city launched a $50 million school renovation project in 1989. City officials are contemplating another five-year project, but Frank Sellew, the deputy superintendent of the Norfolk public schools, said the district will be lucky to get $25 million this time. He said that estimate is inadequate for the district's renovation needs.

"This has been a pretty big issue for us--the lack of money," he said.

While Mr. Sellew does not expect to get any new federal help, he described Mr. Clinton's announcement as a positive development.

"The issue has been raised to the highest level. I started talking about this at the local level five or six years ago--that we're going to have a crisis on our hands," Mr. Sellew said. "Even though there may not be any money coming from [the president's initiative] for a while, it raises the level of debate."

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