Rural Districts Pursue Elusive Capital Funding

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Leadville, Colo.

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 dozens of kindergartners and 1st and 2nd graders who visit each day.

In a nearby classroom, 1st grade teacher Patricia Stout hopes each day that she won't have to move students to one side of the room because of a leaky window or falling ceiling tiles. Across the hall, a portion of the ceiling caved in last year, two days before classes began.

And 2nd grade teacher Carol Shutte fears that many of her students' colds and respiratory problems, and her own allergies, are triggered by moldy conditions in her leaky classroom ceiling.

Maintenance problems in the 349-student school here have become a way of life for its teachers and students. Likewise, in rural school districts across the country, deferred maintenance is causing cash-strapped districts to cry for help.

While school construction traditionally has been a state and local funding concern, this year there has been serious talk of a new federal response to school infrastructure needs.

The cause, though, has been alternately embraced and ignored in Washington, where members of Congress and the White House 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 of school repair needs, about 30 percent of schools in rural areas are in need of serious repair as well, the congressional watchdog agency says.

The Washington-based Organizations Concerned about Rural Education has made school construction funding a top priority for its lobbying efforts, said Charles O. Conrad, the group's executive director.

OCRE 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 earmarked by Congress.

Extensive Needs

The Leadville of today was shaped by a stunning 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, Colo., school district teetered near bankruptcy. Property values--and the ensuing tax revenues--plummeted.

With its breathtaking backdrop of the Rocky Mountains and many of its turn-of-the-century buildings 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 far from major highways, accessible only by winding mountain roads that become treacherous at the first snowfall. Many dilapidated, boarded-up houses line its barren streets.

Not far away--"on the other side of the mountain," as the local residents say--is Aspen, a thriving ski town known for frequent visits by celebrities. Vail, another posh ski resort, is located about 30 miles north.

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 in classrooms and school hallways 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 those 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 Ms. 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," Ms. Portscheller said. "There isn't a facility need that you could think of that isn't on our wish list."

Ms. Portscheller said that none of the four buildings in her district meets basic building-code requirements, nor do they provide accommodations for the disabled.

"We could have our buildings condemned, but then we would have 1,300 kids and nowhere to put them," she said.

A grant from the federal government would be a blessing, she added.

The Federal Debate

In the budget he released in February, President Clinton proposed a five-year, $5 billion initiative to help districts pay interest on school construction bonds. ("President's School Construction Plan Debated," March 19, 1997.)

But the White House abruptly dropped the plan in May during negotiations with Republican lawmakers over a balanced-budget agreement. The administration later announced its support for 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. Senate Democratic leaders also recently introduced a revised, $1.9 billion version of Mr. Clinton's initial proposal.

"The sheer size of the problem requires that the federal government be a partner," Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., said in introducing the bill.

But 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.

Getting the federal government involved would drive up construction costs because local districts would be subject to federal labor laws, argued Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

But Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., who first championed a school construction grant program in 1994 after seeing the dilapidated conditions in Chicago schools, called Mr. Goodling's stance a cop-out.

"The time for finger pointing is past us," said Ms. Moseley-Braun, one of the most vocal proponents of President Clinton's $5 billion plan, said in a recent interview. "The answer is a collaborative cooperation" between federal, state, and local governments, she said.

School construction money will soon find its way into the federal budget because there is so much support for the idea at the local district level, predicted David Frank, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.

Local Funding Woes

At the state level, legislatures are coming under increasing pressure to provide more funding for the facilities problem, according to the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

States have responded in a variety of ways from restructuring their school finance systems to providing more funding for poor districts to encouraging districts to experiment with temporary facilities and reduce the space allotted for each student.

The Colorado legislature, for instance, recently voted down a proposal to use part of the state's lottery proceeds for school facilities, a huge disappointment to Ms. Portscheller.

Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat, is "very concerned'' about the state of school facilities in Leadville and other poor towns, said spokesman Jim Carpenter. Mr. Romer does not have a specific proposal but is working with the state legislature on it.

Colorado law mandates that districts use $200 of their per pupil state aid for facilities. In the Lake County district, which receives a state allocation of about $4,500 per pupil, that adds up to about $200,000.

Ms. Portscheller estimated that $200,000 would only buy one school bus and repave a parking lot, for example. The district's other needs--for new textbooks and English-as-a-second-language classes to serve rising numbers of immigrant students--prevent it from using more of its own money for facilities, she said.

Property taxes in the town of Leadville are among the highest in the state, but its property values are far lower than that of its neighbors. For instance, Ms. Portscheller said raising property taxes 1 mill in Leadville would generate about $45,000 in extra revenue, compared with about $1.8 million in Aspen.

Ms. Portscheller said that parents are not oblivious to schools' problems and that many have expressed concerns about basic safety. But last year Leadville voters shot down, by a 2-1 ratio, a $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, Laurel Roberts, who attends preschool at one of the district's schools. "Last winter, we'd come and pick up their coats, and they'd be soaked" from the leaky roof, she said.

Ms. Purkett voted for the bond referendum but said many of the town's older, retired residents were unwilling to foot the bill for repairs. Next spring, the district will again ask voters to approve a referendum--this time, only for about $3.7 million for repairs to meet basic health and safety requirements. Ms. Portscheller and other superintendents in other low-wealth areas of Colorado are considering suing the state for a more equitable distribution of aid.

Meanwhile, in Washington, Ms. Moseley-Braun said she plans to continue to fight the battle in Congress. "It's going to keep coming back because the issue is not going away," Ms. Moseley-Braun said.

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