PA Must Reads: Delaying School Construction Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

A blog post by Mark Price, originally published at Third and State.

This morning’s theme is penny wise and pound foolish. We pass on news stories of state policy choices that are framed as reality-based budgeting but are, in fact, policy choices that will substantially raise future costs for taxpayers.

First, the Corbett administration is taking steps that will delay school construction and renovation throughout the commonwealth. While there is no evidence that state prevailing wage laws raise construction costs, there is strong evidence that the cheapest time for school districts to build is during periods of high unemployment. By taking steps that will delay school construction, Governor Corbett risks raising the future cost of school construction substantially to the Commonwealth and local school districts.

School officials are worried that the state is reneging on a promise to fund its share of school construction projects, which could cost school districts — and local taxpayers — millions of dollars in unplanned expenditures in the coming years.

Buried within Gov. Tom Corbett’s 2012-13 budget proposal is a provision calling for a one-year moratorium on accepting new applications for state reimbursements for school construction and renovation projects…

But school officials said they should have been told up front, before they committed time and resources to their projects, that there was no guarantee of state funding.

“It is unfair to change the rules in the middle of the game,” said Brenda Becker, superintendent of Hempfield School District, which could lose out on as much as $160,000 per year in construction reimbursements if funding is cut.

The delay in promised payments comes at the same time Gov. Tom Corbett is proposing a moratorium on reimbursements for any new construction projects, as well as a review of the program.

The moratorium makes an uncertain future for renovation projects superintendents say their schools need, and the stall in funding has Western Wayne waiting for $6 million.

“If we don’t receive that money it could bankrupt us,” Superintendent Andrew Falonk said.

According to Pottstown schools business manager Linda Adams quoting information from the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, 230 school projects in Pennsylvania are in the pipeline, awaiting funds or approval for funds. This is money local taxpayers will have to make up if the Department of Education decides not to resurrect PlanCon.

The projects that will have to be scrapped are not luxurious new facilities, it should be noted. Pottstown is trying to repair aging elementary schools — a process over which board members and the community have agonized for years.

Also this morning, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has a story on the financial challenges facing school districts over the next year. If the analysis is correct, we are likely to see more layoffs, rising class sizes and the end of specialized course work.

“My concern is this year, to get that (spending figure) down, there’s no more low-hanging fruit. It may require cutting some programs, increasing class sizes,” [Norwin School Board President Robert] Perkins said. “That’s what scares me, because then you are affecting students.”

Marcie Sinagra, member relations coordinator for the Norwin Chamber of Commerce and the mother of two Norwin students, said the roundtable gave her a better sense of the challenges confronting school officials.

“When you hear about cuts, you think there’s that much fat,” Sinagra said. “There’s not necessarily fat everywhere.”

[Ron] Cowell, a former state lawmaker from Wilkins Township, said he doesn’t envy the task that school administrators face in crafting a budget this spring.

“When the state is cheap, you end up with tougher decisions and usually higher taxes at the local level,” he said. “A community has to decide, what do you value? Is it important to give kids those opportunities or do they become casualties? That’s a tough decision. That’s a tough debate.”