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Legislators Talk, But Don't Dig Deep For School Construction Aid in 1997

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From the White House to statehouses across the country, politicians greeted 1997 with pledges to find new money for school construction. But, halfway through the year, lawmakers have come up with more rhetoric than dollars.

Arizona, Georgia, and New Hampshire are among the states that raised facilities funding in their legislative sessions this year.

Others, such as Colorado, Illinois, and Nevada, balked at major new aid for that purpose. Meanwhile, Florida lawmakers want school construction dollars to be used more efficiently before new money is doled out.

The U.S. General Accounting Office estimated in a report last year that the nation's schools need $112 billion in repairs and upgrades.

That assessment prodded state governments into action on school construction, an area traditionally considered a local responsibility. Then, in February, President Clinton energized the facilities debate by proposing a $5 billion fund to help schools pay interest on their construction bonds. The idea has been stripped from current federal budget proposals, however. ("Democrats, School Groups Seek To Revive Construction Plan," May 21, 1997.)

"This [issue] has been very high profile," said Terry Whitney, a senior policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. "I think that's a major reason why we've even heard states talk about it."

But talk hasn't necessarily translated into action.

"It hasn't been a year of tremendously innovative capital proposals," said David S. Liebschutz, the associate director of the Center for the Study of the States in Albany, N.Y. "Perhaps a half-dozen states are doing something."

Tradition Remains

Nearly a dozen states provide no money for school construction, according to the GAO. And that tradition is hard to change, as Colorado state Rep. Norma V. Anderson, the Republican majority leader, discovered.

She sponsored a bill in the Colorado House early this year that would have let Coloradans vote on a state constitutional amendment to divert $32 million a year in lottery proceeds from maintaining public lands to school construction.

The highly publicized proposal was blasted by environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts before being defeated on a voice vote in the chamber.

Now, Ms. Anderson said, a group of property-poor school districts plans to file a lawsuit this fall arguing that the state must ensure adequate school facilities for students. Similar suits have been successful in Arizona and Wyoming.

"I was surprised there was not a better understanding of this problem," Ms. Anderson added. "There's a fear of funding something for the first time."

Colorado was not alone in squelching facilities fundingproposals.

Illinois lawmakers rejected a school-finance-reform plan that would have raised $100 million for construction and repairs. ("New Chapters Written in Saga of Conn. Desegregation Case," June 11, 1997.)

And a special legislative committee on facilities in Nevada failed to produce first-time state aid for school construction. But it approved a plan last week to freeze current voter-approved property-tax rates in Clark County, which has the nation's fastest-growing school enrollment.

Permission To Land

Other states took more generous stands.

Led by first-year Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, the New Hampshire legislature approved $22.5 million in state-financed construction bonds to urge local communities to add space for kindergarten programs.

The state will provide up-front payments for 75 percent of construction costs for districts adding new programs or expanding existing classrooms.

Arizona lawmakers, facing a June 30 deadline from the state supreme court to draft a new capital-finance system, pledged to send $33 million a year from sales taxes to poor districts. The funding depends on court approval of the legislature's revised state aid formula. Critics say that the funds fall short of the court's demands.

In other states:

  • Maine lawmakers extended the state's $67 million-a-year school construction program from two to five years, giving the go-ahead to 20 stalled projects.

"It was like planes flying over the airport and the controller couldn't let them land," Rep. Thomas W. Murphy, a Republican, said of the waiting line for state funds.

  • Georgia lawmakers set aside $64 million in new lottery proceeds for school construction and renovations in fast-growing school systems.

On-the-Job Learning

In Florida, Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles is expected to call for a special legislative session later this year on school facilities funding. But money is not the only issue for Rep. William F. Andrews, the Republican chairman of the state's House education committee.

The deeper his panel dug into school construction this year, the more convinced he became that facilities funds were being wasted and misused.

He said that new schools in Florida are too expensive because they are too big, with up to 30 percent more square footage per student than in other states' schools. For that reason, he is urging more use of prototype models of smaller schools.

A report by the Senate's ways and means committee also found that just 55.3 percent of school construction dollars raised through local property taxes in Florida go to school construction. The remaining funds are being diverted to operational costs, supplies, and lease-purchase agreements, according to the report.

"When you get all of that worked into the process, you see there's enough money in the system now to pay our way out of this," Mr. Andrews said.

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