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Federal funding for school construction soon may be available

January 23, 1999|By JULIE E. GREENE

Frederick County, Md., public schools are so overcrowded that some classes are being held in work rooms and conference rooms.

For students in some open-style schools, the walls are closing in as partitions are moved in to provide for better use of space.

With 10 percent of the county's 35,000 students in portable classrooms, the Frederick County Board of Education is in the midst of a six-year, $180 million plan to build new schools and expand existing ones to ease overcrowding, said Superintendent Jack Dale.

None of that money was expected to come from the federal government.

If Congress approves President Clinton's plan to ease overcrowding and modernize aging schools, federal funding for school construction could be available for the first time, officials said.

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Last year, Congress failed to approve a one-time appropriation of $5 billion Clinton proposed to subsidize interest on school bond issues, said Tom Lyon, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.

During his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Clinton said he wanted to try again.

"I ask you to help our communities build or modernize 5,000 schools," Clinton told Congress.

Schools across the nation and the Tri-State area are feeling the "baby boom echo" - a record number of kids, the children of baby boomers, making their way through public schools, Lyon said. On top of that, the average age of public schools is 42 years, too old to be featuring Internet connections without costly upgrades, he said.

It would cost $120 billion to renovate, build and modernize enough schools nationwide to accommodate the surge in students, Lyon said.

The $5 million subsidy Clinton proposed last year was intended to stimulate $20 billion in school construction and renovation, he said. Clinton will release his proposed budget for fiscal 2000 on Feb. 1.

Tri-State area school systems could use a federal subsidy in their attempts to keep up with growing student populations.

The new schools and additions in Berkeley County, W.Va., during the last few years and the ones in the planning stages won't make a dent in the overcrowding in the Martinsburg schools, said Frank Aliveto, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Martinsburg High School was last renovated in 1991 and, with more than 1,400 students, is approaching its maximum capacity, Aliveto said.

"We're growing by about 400 to 500 kids a year in the county. We're the fastest-growing school system in West Virginia," he said.

There is no "bubble" or larger group of children at a particular age level working its way through the grades, Aliveto said. The problem exists from kindergarten through 12th grade.

In Chambersburg, Pa., bubbles are everywhere, said Superintendent Edwin Sponseller.

"We feel we're crowded due mainly to the expansion of special education programs, and we look forward to any initiative that Clinton may be able to push through Congress to help us out," Sponseller said.

The school system is reconfiguring the number of classes at each grade level and the number of grades in each school, but more room is needed, he said.

Several years ago the school system bought 17 acres across McKinley Street from Chambersburg Area Senior High School to expand, but details such as cost, schedule and number of new classrooms remain to be determined, Sponseller said.

School officials have to be cautious in planning because the state reimburses the local government only once every 20 years for a particular building, he said.

Waynesboro, Pa., schools also are bursting at their seams because of added programs, said Superintendent Robert Mesaros.

Storage areas have been converted to classrooms for elective courses with fewer students, such as art, he said.

In addition to planning for expansion, school administrators know some buildings need updated heating and ventilation systems, Mesaros said.

Washington County school officials plan to add classrooms to Clear Spring and Williamsport elementary schools to eliminate the need for portable classrooms.

As the bubble of large classes progresses through the grades, other accommodations are being made, said Dennis McGee, director of facilities management.

Partitions are added in the middle schools, which are open schools, to use space more efficiently, McGee said.

The high schools have some extra capacity, so officials may consider redistricting to accommodate a large number of sixth- and seventh-graders on their way, he said.

There are about 1,600 students each in the sixth and seventh grades, compared with 1,117 seniors this year, McGee said.

Jefferson County, W.Va., also is experiencing student population growth at the high school level.

There have been 300 new students at the high school in the last two years, and that growth is expected to continue, said Superintendent David Markoe.

The county recently received $7.3 million from the West Virginia School Building Authority for a ninth-grade center for 600 students to alleviate overcrowding in the high school, Markoe said.

The plan is to eventually turn the ninth-grade center into a middle school once a new high school is open, he said. A new high school could cost $22 million.

"This is a favorable time to go for a bond because the interest rates are low. Certainly if Congress would come in to help, that would make it even more favorable," Markoe said.

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