The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

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Opinion

June 3, 2014

Nothing about school construction happens quickly

HARRISBURG — With summer approaching, students across the commonwealth are scurrying to finish year-end projects. The state Department of Education had a big project due in May, too. But officials are quietly asking for an extension because they didn’t get the job done.

In a 22-page report, education officials say about one-third of the state’s school districts responded to a survey meant to gauge how much it will cost to replace or repair aging school buildings. That’s just not enough feedback to determine the scope of the problem, the report’s authors note.

Their study is not mere busywork. It’s important because the state must figure out how much money it needs to help local districts pay for new construction. In the meantime, a crisis is deepening for many districts that are waiting for cash from the state to help pay for new building or repairs.

The Department of Education was assigned the survey because it has no handle on how many such projects are on the horizon. The state gets involved in local school construction only after districts raise their hands to say they intend to undertake a project.

To solve that problem, the public school code included in the 2013-14 budget required education officials to inventory school buildings. They were assigned to examine the number of buildings in each district, when the buildings opened, and when they were last renovated.

The state launched a survey as it fell further behind in its obligation to help pay for local school construction. The Department of Education announced in 2012 that because it couldn’t keep pace with its share of the spending, it would not reimburse any new projects until the process was reformed.

Almost two years later, Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget includes a plan to extend that moratorium another year, and the Legislature has yet to come up with a solution.

Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officers, said districts scrambled to start work before the moratorium was in place. While that hasn’t gotten them paid, it’s gotten them in line for state reimbursements.

Eventually, every project started before the moratorium should get reimbursed by the state, he said. Eventually.

Two hundred projects are stuck in the planning and construction process, just before the key step where the state agrees to pay a share of the cost. The Department of Education notes it would cost $145 million in the coming budget to pay the state’s share of those projects.

That’s just a fraction of the $1.6 billion the state is already committed to pay for local construction. There are 338 projects backlogged, and the state’s reimbursement is spread over 30 years.

And that doesn’t include projects that didn’t get started before the moratorium – or those that have yet to be identified.

The state didn’t release its school survey until April 3. Also, the survey handed a considerable amount of work to local school officials. Each building owned by a district requires a separate survey response. In three weeks, the state had received responses for 1,144 buildings, representing about a third of the districts.

Himes noted the survey consisted of 39 questions asking for information that may not always be easy to locate. He said he doesn’t think the response to the survey so far has been underwhelming by any measure.

Part of the struggle is that the state has simply never bothered to compile this information before. Once the information is gathered, Hime said, there will be a clearer picture of the statewide building needs.

In the meantime, those districts that got work under way before the moratorium are still waiting for money promised years ago.

That frustrates local officials and lawmakers alike.

“They’ve been stuck for two years. So that’s putting the cost on the local taxpayers. The state needs to pay its share,” said state Rep. Mark Longietti, Hermitage,  D-7th District.

John Finnerty works in the Harrisburg Bureau for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. He can be reached by email at jfinnerty@cnhi.com or on Twitter@cnhipa

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