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Out of the usual frantic rush to close the New York State Legislature's business for 1997 has come a creation called the School Facility Health and Safety Bond Act of 1997. It shows up on the general election ballot on Nov. 4 as Proposition No. 3.

If the voters say yes, the state will be able to issue bonds worth up to $2.4 billion for building, modernizing and expanding public schools all over New York State. It would be government debt, but the least expensive kind. Vote-authorized general-obligation debt gets the most favorable interest rates.

Opponents are making some good points, but they cannot rationally argue against the essential purpose of the bond act. As New York tries to improve the classroom performance of its young people, its adults must stand ready to supply physical settings that support a modern education. By passing the bond act, they can help districts fix up crumbling old school buildings that are ill-suited for the computer age and generally not up to the challenge of the future.

The needs are immediate and, all too often, right around the corner.

The bond act proposal sets six broad categories for spending the money. Projects must (1) address "serious health and safety needs," (2) expand capacity, (3) improve accessibility for the disabled, (4) deal with emergencies, (5) correct environmental problems or (6) relate to "educational technology."

The money would create places -- new or renovated -- that encourage learning, places that tell the kids the community's adults care enough about their future to put money on the line for it. That's not happening in deteriorated old buildings, like Buffalo's Grover Cleveland High School, or cramped quarters, like dismal School 57 on Sears Street where basement storage areas have become crowded classrooms.

There's a line of thought that crumbling schools are a New York City problem. Isn't that where they conduct classes in old locker rooms?

But the State Education Department says 85 percent of schools outside New York City need repairs before they can be rated in good overall condition. Buffalo deserves special mention because its buildings average about 65 years of age.

The school bond issue cannot meet all New York State's school building needs, but it can get a running start by addressing the most urgent of them.

It's our bad luck that the high-level negotiations that produced the school bond act failed to reach an agreement on how the money would be distributed to school districts. It's a flaw, to be sure.

But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, a key proponent of the bond act, is vowing that, even if voters approve Nov. 4, the Assembly will not let the money flow unless a plan is developed to distribute it "fairly across the state" on a needs basis.

Will New York City's great needs overwhelm those in the rest of the state?

Silver is promising that his city's share of the bond act money will not exceed 40 percent, roughly its share of the state's pupils and of regular state financial aid. If Silver tries to renege on his promises, it will be the job of upstate Assembly Democrats to bring him back to it. It's their votes that help make Silver the speaker. Ensuring fair distribution is their challenge.

There's a challenge, also, to school-district plant officials to get priority projects ready for bond act funding. Notably in Buffalo, the school system has lagged in meeting physical needs over the years. As the state selects projects to fund, need should be crucial. But it's also not reasonable to expect the state to fund projects that are far from ready.

The challenge for voters is easier. Recognize the essential need for up-to-date school facilities as a crucial component in the push for better education in New York State. Vote yes on the bond act.

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