States Boost Construction Investment

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Like a lot of other states, Virginia has more than its share of overcrowded, out-of-date, and crumbling schools. In fact, state officials estimate it would cost in excess of $6 billion to address the problem.

Mindful of that, lawmakers in Virginia are making an unprecedented commitment to what traditionally has been a local responsibility in their commonwealth: building new schools and repairing and upgrading older ones.

Virginia is in good company. Facing multibillion-dollar facilities problems of their own--needs that experts say have grown too great for local districts to meet entirely on their own--state policymakers across the country are upping their school construction ante.

"School construction has become a hot-button political issue for states," said Mary Fulton, a policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "The need, whether from enrollment growth, technology demands, or deterioration, has outpaced the ability to pay at the local side.

"And, at minimum, states are discussing that need," she said. At maximum, she continued, states are committing new dollars to school facilities.

In Virginia, for example, the budget that Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III signed last week includes a two-year, $110 million appropriation to help localities pay for school building and repair projects.

"School construction is the hue and cry of constituents," said Barbara C. Worth, the spokeswoman for the Council of Educational Facilities Planners, based in Scottsdale, Ariz. "People realize how far behind we are."

"It's an issue on everybody's radar screen," added Steven K. Wollmer, a spokesman for the National Education Association. "This is a $200 billion national problem that's not going to go away."

That figure is culled from a 1995 U.S. General Accounting Office survey that found a $112 billion backlog of maintenance and repairs in the nation's elementary and secondary schools. When technology upgrades and new schools are added to that estimate, according to the NEA, the total K-12 school construction need exceeds $200 billion.

Budget Boost

The booming economy has spawned state budget surpluses that are allowing lawmakers to respond to school construction concerns, policymakers say.

Florida and Illinois legislators, for example, addressed school facilities during special legislative sessions late last year. Last November, the Florida legislature passed a $2.7 billion plan to build and renovate schools. The following month, Illinois lawmakers approved a five-year, $1 billion fund for school construction.

In California, where the state education department estimates the cost of building needed schools and fixing old ones at $20.6 billion, Gov. Pete Wilson, another Republican, has proposed putting $8 billion in school construction bonds on statewide ballots in $2 billion increments over four election cycles.

And in New York, only months after voters rejected a $2.4 billion school bond plan, the state budget that lawmakers agreed on last week includes a $500 million allocation for school construction projects. Gov. George E. Pataki had not signed off on the budget as of last week.

"If, only a few years ago, you would have told me that we'd be putting 500 million additional dollars into school construction, I would have said that's impossible," said Assemblyman Paul A. Tokasz, a Democrat from Buffalo, N.Y., who expects his local schools to see $7 million of that new money. "The new funds will go a long way to help fix up old schools, especially in urban areas, which really can't afford to take out bonds."

"There's a $1.2 billion need here. Our number-one education priority here should be school facilities," added Kentucky state Rep. Charles Walton, a Republican and a heavy proponent of the $201 million school facilities measure passed in his state this spring. "There's phenomenal growth in some regions, and schools falling down in others."

Some facilities experts argue that the total need can be fairly addressed only if local and state officials--under the leadership of the federal government--work together.

"Local districts can't solve this problem on their own. And while there's some indication that states are doing more, I'm not sure that state leaders understand how much they need to add to [school construction] funding," said Paul Abramson, the president of Stanton, Leggett & Associates, an education consulting firm in Larchmont, N.Y. "That's why the federal government has to step in."

It may.

President Clinton has proposed a plan to spur nearly $22 billion in school construction by underwriting $10 billion in interest on bonds with federal tax subsidies. Under the proposal, half the tax subsidies would go to initiatives in the 100 school districts with the largest number of poor students.

"It is in the national interest to know that we have decent infrastructure for our schools," Mr. Clinton said while touring a Chicago school earlier this month. Congress could vote on the plan this month while taking up a related GOP-backed education savings account plan.

But not everyone wants the federal government to get involved.

Nina Shokraii, an education policy analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative public-policy group, argues that school issues--including construction--are best handled at the local and state levels.

Promoting school construction "is good rhetoric in an election year," she said. "But generally we don't support federal intrusion into state affairs."

"We acknowledge that there is a need," she continued, "but the federal government's proposal isn't going to resolve things. The money would go to the school districts that tend to waste it the most, like Washington, D.C. The best thing Congress and the president can do is relax [federal] building rules and regulations."

Legal Urgency

Increasingly, school finance experts note, court decisions are linking the quality of a school system to the condition of its schools. Several states involved in finance litigation have been forced by their supreme courts to revamp their systems of paying for the construction and repair of schools.

"Most states don't have major funding programs for facilities, just small programs that assist local school systems in building schools," said John Myers, a school finance consultant with the Denver-based firm of Augenblick & Myers. "Years ago, the trend [of school finance litigation] was for courts to look at operating budgets. But today, because of technology and education reform, facilities are playing a big part of equalized-educational-opportunity issues. The trend is to rethink these systems and pay more at the state level."

Last spring in Ohio, for example, the state high court, after declaring the system of paying for schools inadequate and unconstitutional, gave the legislature one year to overhaul the way schools' operational and construction dollars are raised and distributed. In addition to a $933 million building-assistance program established by Ohio lawmakers last spring, voters there will decide May 5 on a 1-cent sales-tax referendum that would provide some $550 million in additional school aid each year. ("Ohio Lawmakers Agree To Place Tax Question on Upcoming Ballot," Feb. 25, 1998.)

And in Arizona, lawmakers concluded a special legislative session on school construction April 9 by passing a plan that will provide up to $372 million annually to construct, equip, and maintain public schools. The plan follows a 1994 state supreme court ruling that ordered the legislature to devise an equitable system of school construction. ("Ariz. OKs Finance Plan; New Challenge Expected," April 15, 1998.)

Finance reform may be just beginning in Colorado. In January, a coalition of parents from several districts there filed a class action charging that the state's method of financing schools violates the state constitution because it "denies some school districts the funds necessary to provide adequate facilities."

The Colorado Constitution requires a "thorough and uniform system of free public schools."

"The problem is so concrete--schools are overcrowded, buildings are falling apart, many can't get wired [for the Internet]," Ms. Fulton of the Education Commission of the States said. "The question being asked now is, who should pay and with what taxes?"

To David S. Honeyman Jr., a school facilities expert in the department of educational leadership at the University of Florida in Gainesville, the answer to that question is everyone.

"The magnitude of the problem is difficult to come to grips with. The figures are monumental," said Mr. Honeyman, who has worked with federal officials on their school construction plan. "It's going to come down to mom and pop and grandma and grandpa supporting school construction through local taxes, state leaders making school construction a top priority, and a real federal investment.

"I've never heard a state say they wouldn't take federal money for school construction," he added.

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