Obama and Congress collide on school improvement funds

WASHINGTON — In his first news conference as president, Barack Obama described a rural South Carolina school that was built in 1896 and has walls so old and rickety that they shake when a freight train passes.

J.V. Martin Junior High School in Dillon, S.C., Obama said, was one of 1,200 or so crumbling schools nationwide that he wanted to replace using some of the billions of dollars he was seeking to revive the economy.

Now, however, Obama's eloquence and best intentions for J.V. Martin and poor schools like it across the country have collided with harsh political realities in Washington.

The stimulus bill the House of Representatives passed last week contained $20 billion to replace and modernize schools, but the Senate removed all the school construction money to make room for tax cuts in the stimulus measure it approved on Tuesday.

Over the next two days, various amounts of school modernization funds were inserted, removed from and then put back in the stimulus bill as House and Senate negotiators tried to resolve their differences.

There was $13.4 billion less for school construction than the House had wanted — for a new total of $6.6 billion — but more than the Senate had demanded.

South Carolina, which has the nation's third-highest unemployment rate at 9.5 percent, and also is one of the poorest states, would get $96 million, less than half the nearly $209 million it would've received under the House bill and just 2{ times the $37 million cost of replacing J.V. Martin Junior High School.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking black member of Congress, helped get school construction money back in the stimulus package, and he made sure that Obama didn't forget J.V. Martin.

"You and I and many other politicians used J.V. Martin (School) as a prop during the campaign season," Clyburn reminded Obama last month. "Now it's time to give those kids and their families their props with a bold recovery package."

Obama campaigned at the school and several other South Carolina schools on his way to winning the state's presidential primary in January 2008, and he remembered J.V. Martin.

Obama noted his visit to the school in his prime-time news conference Monday evening. "Kids are still learning in that school, as best they can . . . . It's right next to a railroad. And when the train runs by, the whole building shakes and the teacher has to stop teaching for a while."

Amanda Burnette, the principal of J.V. Martin, said Obama was moved by the dilapidated condition of her school when he visited it on Aug. 21, 2007, the first day of the school year.

"He took both my hands and thanked me for the job I was doing here," Burnette said on Thursday. "He said, 'I promise you, Ms. Burnette, I will not forget you.' "

Clyburn reminded Obama again during a phone conversation on Wednesday.

"Majority Whip Clyburn has used his power and influence under the parameters of the bill to create the best opportunity for schools like J.V. Martin to be modernized and for jobs to be created in the communities around those schools," said Kristie Greco, a Clyburn aide. "It's up the state and local school districts to finish what he started."

Obama's aides said that a provision in the stimulus deal crafted by Rep. Bob Etheridge of North Carolina also allows school districts to issue $25 billion in "tax-advantaged" bonds to build schools. School districts wouldn't have to pay interest on the bonds, and the bondholders could get a tax deduction for the lost interest earned.

In Dillon, Principal Burnette is hoping for the best.

Dillon County residents voted in December 2007 to allow her school district and two neighboring ones to sell school construction bonds, but they can't find buyers in the worsening recession.

Perhaps the tax incentives in the stimulus deal will help sell bonds to help pay for building her a new school, and maybe some of the school construction aid in the stimulus package can be used. If so, thank J.V. Martin Junior High.


Watch a PBS documentary on J.V. Martin Junior High School


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