- The Washington Times - Friday, September 7, 2001

A decade ago, a parental advocacy group forced D.C. authorities to come face to face with the fact that most of the city's 180 school houses were aged, unsafe and crumbling. A decade later, the city has one spanking new school and plans to build eight to 10 more. The goal is to eventually modernize or rebuild the entire portfolio. The price tag: $2 billion and quickly rising.

Tax dollars and public borrowing, however, can only do so much, and there always is the risk that politicians will reshuffle priorities, calling for other things to be built or paid for instead of school houses. Happens all the time.

That doesn't have to be, though, if school authorities take advantage of a little-known provision that President Bush signed into law in June. Part of the tax-cut law, of which most taxpayers are already reaping the benefits, the provision gives tax breaks to private investors who finance and build schools, and then lease space to a school system.

Of course, this is a win-win situation for cash-strapped urban areas like the District, and areas that aren't flush with surpluses, such as Houston and Los Angeles; and it is also good for sprawling suburban areas such as Montgomery County, Md., and Raleigh, N.C.

Consider Los Angeles, whose plan to build 20 new elementary schools is twice as ambitious as the District's. Partnering with private developers, who would build and lease the school back to the school district, would save time and taxpayer money. In fact, a pilot project to turn over financing and construction has been on the drawing board for some time. L.A. authorities prefer to do things the traditional way.

So, what is the traditional way?

Usually, it is a lengthy and costly process. The example I can best illustrate is the District's, since, as a public school parent nominated by her daughter's principal, I participate in that process. Also, the private company that helped design the D.C. process has also worked with other school districts to draw up plans for modernizing their school portfolios, too.

The most common thread seems to be trying to get government bureaucracies to move with all deliberate speed on educational matters. The red tape becomes endless reams of processes and paperwork, meetings, public hearings and political posturing.

Recall, as I mentioned earlier, that the District decided a decade ago to modernize its schools. By the mid-1990s, it began closing schools and making promises. By the late 1990s, school authorities chose which firms would work with small groups of parents, teachers and other stakeholders, and which architectural and design firms would work with such groups. Finally, in early 2001, the mayor, city lawmakers and the school board gave their respective nods. Even then, after all that, there were folks who proposed waiting until the city had all $2 billion in the bank before breaking ground on one school. I can only imagine the nightmare in Los Angeles.

Now consider office buildings, or warehouses, or manufacturing plants, or your nearby Wal-Mart. Think it took any of those 10 years to be up and running? How about half that time?

Compare that with the average time it takes to build an elementary school, which is five years, and then compare that with the District's decade-long affair. Now compare all that to the nine months it took a private company in Florida to build a school. Nine months. One school year.

Some communities under pressure to reduce class sizes and the pressure is certainly on, whether you prefer that brand of swill or not became quite innovative about school facilities before the federal exemption. Paterson, N.J., for one, leases space at a vacant downtown mall for two of its magnet programs, while Raleigh uses a converted manufacturing facility as a middle school.

Florida, meanwhile, is a model state for so-called workplace charter schools - on-site schools for employees' children financed through private activity bonds - similar to the provision Mr. Bush signed. One example is Miami International Airport, whose employees with kindergartners through second-graders can send their children to a school there. Two other examples are a bank and a 12,000-acre retirement community, both of which built charter schools for children of their employees.

Such win-win situations are a far cry from what's going on in say, Montgomery County, a sprawling suburb of Washington whose school population is exploding while its political and educational leadership prefers sticking to the status quo.

What's more is that wealthy Maryland county can and does build new school buildings albeit the arduous and traditional way. Yet it stifles the charter school movement with such lame excuses as no available school facilities, which truly makes me sigh, because the fewer choices a community has the more poor folks suffer. After all, charter schools are nothing more than agreements with a public school system.

That is why this financing idea is pregnant with possibilities. Not only can schools be built quicker and cheaper, but off-hour use can benefit other segments of the community as well. Churches, for example, could lease space for before- and/or after-school child-care services. Trade companies could lease space for reasonably priced how-to courses. Or, if a school system insists and the private owner agrees, the building would only be used, even in the off-hours, for public educational purposes, perhaps including evening adult-literacy courses, GED preparations and exams or driver's education classes.

Now, make no mistake. Overwhelmed taxpayers are not anxious to shell out long dough to build dozens of schools that their children, and perhaps even their children's children, will never use. They are anxious to see academic improvements, however.

Seems to me it's time to let the private investors and builders do what they do best. Does that sound practical to you?




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