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$1 billion for the public's schools
(Published July 11, 2005)

D.C. City Councilman Jack Evans used a rather curious tactic last week in questioning proposed legislation that would require the issuance of $1 billion in city bonds, backed by D.C. Lottery proceeds, to make repairs to long-dilapidated public schools.

Evans, who was co-chairing a public hearing on the measure, asked whether there were enough contractors available to carry out such a major construction project on a short-term basis. The question is almost laughable, considering that bidding on such a huge undertaking has the potential to attract contractors from across the country to the nation's capital.

Sadly, Evans appears not to grasp the scope of benefits to the public in creating a tight timetable for making the much-needed school repairs. Along with -- finally! -- providing the District's more than 60,000 public schoolchildren with a proper learning environment, the project could provide on-the-job skills training to turn a significant number of unemployed residents into taxpaying wage-earners. Significant public benefits could follow in future years, jump-started by such a project.

On the downside, some of the District's many private schools might begin to see their enrollments decline if more residents, who often complain about paying taxes and tuition for their children's education, become comfortable with sending their children into spiffy public schools.

Oddly, the mayor and council have had no qualms about using publicly issued revenue bond financing to help many of those private schools expand in recent years, while continuing to force the children of less wealthy residents into unhealthful buildings that, in many cases, are literally falling down around them. Not even Councilman Evans will send his own three children into the public school conditions that his own votes on financial matters have helped to create over the years.

Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, in his cautioning testimony at the council's July 7 hearing on Councilman Adrian Fenty's bill to raise $1 billion for fixing schools, noted that current spending policies of the city's elected officials might make it difficult for the city to maintain its favorable bond ratings on Wall Street (which translate into lower interest rates when the D.C. government borrows money) if another huge public project is financed.

However, Gandhi also noted that the D.C. Lottery -- even in bad years -- has produced at least the $60 million in proceeds that would be dedicated to paying off bonds for school repairs in Fenty's bill. That $60 million now flows into the District's General Fund, where either the lost revenue would need to be replaced or spending would need to be cut.

The CFO also noted that selling $1 billion in bonds, backed by a $60 million annual payment, probably would require the use of general obligation bonds, backed by the "full faith and credit" of the D.C. government. Lottery-backed revenue bonds, viewed as riskier in the financial markets, would probably require establishment of an additional reserve fund, according to the CFO.

Clearly, there is a way -- given the political will -- to raise the money for a $1 billion schools improvement project. What's required is that elected officials rearrange their priorities to truly put the District's children first.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator