Originally created 03/15/97

Richmond County could get $5.3 million in federal school construction aid



WASHINGTON - Richmond County would receive almost $5.3 million in federal school construction aid under legislation unveiled on Friday by the Clinton administration.

While that pales in comparison to the $150 million the school system hopes to raise from a proposed 1-cent county sales tax increase to go before voters on Tuesday, school officials greeted the news enthusiastically.

"I'm excited to hear this," said Superintendent Charles Larke. "Whatever we get is going to be a big help to us."

Richmond County is one of 100 municipalities across the country that would receive local allocations under the president's bill, which would target school districts with the greatest number of children living in poverty.

About half of the $5 billion earmarked in the legislation would go to those districts, while the other half would be shared by state education departments. Georgia would receive slightly less than $70 million, and South Carolina would get about $46.3 million. States and districts would be required to put up half of the money for each construction project.

Mr. Clinton has vowed to make school construction and renovation a major priority in the education package he hopes to steer through Congress this year. A recent nationwide study found that 60 percent of all schools need at least one major repair, and onethird need extensive repairs or are beyond fixing.

"We are in the midst of a virtual epidemic of old and sick school buildings," Education Secretary Richard Riley said during a Washington news conference. "What kind of a message do children get when we send them to schools that are literally crumbling around their heads? They get the message that we don't care about them or their education - and America can't afford to have our children believe that."

"Certainly a threshold requirement for learning to take place is a good environment to learn, where the roof doesn't leak and it's not freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer," added Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

Dr. Larke said the $150 million that would be raised during the next five years by the proposed sales tax hike would be used to retire the debt on the $115 million bond county voters approved last fall. The bond will pay for 45 projects, including a new $18.5 million high school and six new elementary schools, he said.

Even with all of that construction, Dr. Larke said the rapidly growing district still needs another middle school and elementary school.

But whether Richmond schools can count on the federal allocation proposed by Mr. Clinton to help pay for future projects is uncertain. Congressional Republicans tend to take a dim view of legislation that boosts education spending at the federal level.

"We feel educators back in local school districts know better than anybody else how to provide the best education for their children," said John Stone, a spokesman for Rep. Charlie Norwood, RGa., a member of the House education committee. "Charlie believes education dollars can be much better spent at the state and local levels."