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Rural Schools Need Repairs

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Pam Simms has a hard time explaining the gaping hole in the roof of the West Park Elementary School library where she works to the many kids who visit each day.

In a nearby classroom, 1st grade teacher Patricia Stout is always wondering whether she will have to move students to one side of the room or the other because of a leaky window or falling ceiling tiles. And 2nd grade teacher Carol Shutte fears that many of her students' colds and respiratory problems, as well as her own allergies, are triggered by the mold in her leaky classroom ceiling.

Maintenance problems in this 349-student Leadville, Colorado, school have become a way of life for teachers and students. Indeed, deferred maintenance is causing cash-strapped school officials in rural districts across the country to cry for help. Although school construction traditionally has been a state and local funding concern, there has been serious talk this year of a new federal response to school infrastructure needs. The cause, though, has been alternately embraced and ignored in Washington, D.C., where members of Congress are debating whether the federal government should for the first time take a role in school-construction funding--a role that could help schools such as Leadville's West Park.

The U.S. General Accounting Office estimates it would cost $112 billion to bring all of the nation's school facilities into compliance with building codes. And while crowded and crumbling inner-city schools often dominate news, about 30 percent of schools in rural areas are in need of serious repair, as well.

A Washington, D.C.-based advocacy coalition, Organizations Concerned About Rural Education, has made school-construction funding a top lobbying priority. OCRE Executive Director Charles Conrad says the group is putting together a campaign to publicize rural schools' building needs, partly out of fear that urban areas will garner more attention--and more funding--from Congress.

Like many of the communities that dot the rural landscape, the Leadville of today was shaped by a reversal of fortune. At the turn of the century, it was one of the richest towns in Colorado, with a wealth of gold, silver, copper, and zinc mines. But in the early 1980s, the mines closed, most of the upper-income residents moved away, and the 1,300-student Lake County school district teetered near bankruptcy. Property values--and resulting tax revenues--plummeted.

With its breathtaking Rocky Mountain backdrop and much of its turn-of-the-century housing stock still intact, Leadville is now a haven for low-wage workers at nearby ski resorts. At an altitude of nearly two miles above sea level, the town is accessible only by winding roads. Not far away--"on the other side of the mountain," as the locals say--is the posh ski town Aspen.

According to a 1995 assessment by an independent contractor, Leadville's school infrastructure repairs could cost $15 million. At West Park Elementary, roof leaks have caused the tile floors and carpet to buckle, ceiling tiles to grow moldy and fall down, and wiring to short out. Lake County schools superintendent Peg Portscheller has no idea when--or if--the district will have the money to make even the most basic repairs at West Park or any of the district's three other schools.

Last year, the district secured a one-time emergency bailout of $375,000 from the state to replace roofs on West Park and the district's preschool center after an engineer told Portscheller that the buildings could not withstand another winter without new roofs. "We have not had the resources to maintain--let alone upgrade--school facilities," Portscheller says. "There isn't a facility need that you could think of that isn't on our wish list." A grant from the federal government would be a blessing.

In the budget the Clinton administration released in February, the president proposed a five-year, $5 billion initiative to help districts pay interest on school-construction bonds. But the White House abruptly dropped the plan in May during negotiations with Republican lawmakers. The administration later backed an effort by Senate Democrats to secure at least some of the funds. The Senate voted in September to appropriate $100 million for school-construction grants. A final appropriations bill is still being negotiated by a House-Senate conference committee. In the meantime, Senate Democratic leaders introduced a revised, $1.9 billion version of Clinton's initial proposal. "The sheer size of the problem requires that the federal government be a partner," Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle of South Dakota said in introducing the bill.

Many House Republicans insist that the issue remains a local responsibility, and some maintain that states must take a more active role in providing facilities aid for districts such as Lake County.

But Illinois Democratic Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, who first championed a school-construction grant program in 1994 after seeing the dilapidated conditions in Chicago schools, insists that the response should be a collaborative effort by federal, state, and local governments. "The time for finger pointing is past us," she says.

At the state level, legislatures are coming under increasing pressure to provide more funding for the facilities problem. States have responded in a variety of ways, including restructuring their school-finance systems, boosting funding for poor districts, and encouraging districts to experiment with temporary facilities and reduce the space allotted for each student.

The Colorado legislature recently voted down a proposal to use part of the state's lottery proceeds for school facilities, a huge disappointment to Portscheller in Lake County. Colorado law mandates that districts use $200 of their per-pupil state aid for facilities. In Lake County, which receives a state allocation of about $4,500 per pupil, that adds up to about $200,000, enough, Portscheller says, for a new school bus and parking lot.

Although parents are well-aware of the schools' problems, Leadville voters last year shot down an $8.5 million bond referendum that would have been used for repairs.

Ruth Purkett, a lifelong Leadville resident, worries about her 3-year-old granddaughter, who attends preschool at a district school. Last winter, she'd come to pick up her granddaughter and find the girl's coat soaked from the leaky roof. Purkett voted for the bond referendum but says many of the town's older, retired residents were unwilling to foot the bill for repairs. Next spring, the district will go to the voters again--but this time for only $3.7 million for repairs to meet basic health and safety requirements.

In Washington, meanwhile, Moseley-Braun says she plans to continue the fight in Congress. "The issue is not going away," she says.

--Joetta L. Sack

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