- The Washington Times - Friday, July 8, 2005

Finally, the D.C. Council is considering legislation that addresses financing the modernization of aged school buildings. Unfortunately, the bill pushes in the wrong direction. City Administrator Robert Bobb and Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, who testified Thursday at a hearing, presented City Hall with options other than the financially risky ones proposed by the School Modernization Financing Act of 2005.

Closing and modernizing schools involves long-standing commitment and is always costly — both financially and politically. That’s why we have long advocated selling and consolidating closed and underutilized schoolhouses. Congressional leaders told leaders to begin concrete efforts to do just that in May, and Mr. Bobb made similar comments on Thursday.

Mr. Gandhi spoke directly to the legislation, which proposes earmarking lottery revenues, leaving the modernization of schools to the sole discretion of the school board and mandating a multiyear school-facilities plan.

We urge the council to protect the District’s creditworthiness. As Mr. Gandhi said in his testimony: “Bonds supported by lottery revenue are relatively unusual in the U.S.” He also said that interest rates and insurance are higher on lottery bonds than general obligation (GO) bonds. In addition, the CFO said that credit-rating agencies have not yet fully developed policies regarding lottery bonds and a jurisdiction’s debt profile. The city only recently won respect for its fiscal practices. City Hall is far from earning fiscally conservative bragging rights.

The needs of our schoolhouses are great and urgent, and on those issues all stakeholders agree. However, with charter schools flourishing and in desperate need of safe and quality schoolhouses, and potential mayoral candidacies up in the air, no serious D.C. lawmaker (or sitting mayor) should consider handing over all funds and decision-making regarding school facilities to the D.C. Board of Education.

We were initially skeptical of the creation of the State Education Office (and exercise our prerogative to remain so). However, this elected-appointed hybrid of a school board has yet to prove that it is remotely interested in repairing schools, let alone building new ones from the ground up. It does, on the other hand, show its bias toward school choice, especially charter schools. For those and other reasons, we support granting the SEO the decision-making authority on modernization is the smart thing to do.

City Hall can earmark hundreds of millions in funds by selling, leasing and consolidating school facilities, and by finally — finally — adopting the multiyear proposals that parents, students and teachers, as well as stakeholders in the business community, put together when Arlene Ackerman was superintendent and Kevin Chavous was education chair.

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