New Castle News

April 4, 2014

Schools wait years to receive state’s share of construction bills

John Finnerty

HARRISBURG — More than 200 school building projects are awaiting money from the state — in some cases months and years after they cleared all other hurdles of Pennsylvania’s approval process.

The state lists 347 projects — worth more than $1.7 billion — somewhere in the planning stages. In 204 cases, local officials have cleared each step of the process, except for the final one in which the department of education calculates exactly how much it will spend.

In many of those cases, construction on the schools is already complete.

Among them are the New Castle district’s Harry W. Lockley Primary Center and the Wilmington district’s middle/high school.

The Central Cambria School District — which took out a $7.4 million bond in 2010 to build a middle school annex, expecting help from the state — is among those waiting for money.

“We’d never have done it if we thought the state wasn’t going to pay,” business manager Mary Ann Kaschalk said.

The backlog began when schools across the commonwealth scrambled to begin projects while rates were low and contractors eager for work were submitting favorable bids. Then, in 2012, the department of education said it couldn’t keep pace with its share of spending and would not reimburse new projects until the process was reformed.

Two years later, the Legislature has yet to come up with a solution, and schools are still waiting to get paid.

State Rep. Seth Grove, R-York County, last week introduced a bill to streamline the planning process, create a database of school construction statewide and add $100 million to the budget to help cover the state’s share of school construction.

The Titusville Area School District in Venango County also is among those waiting for help. It filed more than three years ago for final approval for state funds to help pay for construction at Pleasantville Elementary School, business manager Shawn Sampson told the House education committee during a hearing.

Sampson calculated the state should have paid the district $670,000 by now. Its full share would be about $2.5 million, he said.

“The future effect of this moratorium on funding will likely mean higher taxes and fewer programs for students,” he said.

The Mifflinburg Area School District in Union County took $900,000 from its savings to compensate for missed reimbursements for a 2010 project at the high school, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq told lawmakers it will cost $140 million for the state to meet its obligations to the 204 projects this year. But the backlog is just part of the problem.

Dumaresq said one long-term solution would be to abandon the reimbursement model and instead include construction in the state’s basic education funding for local schools. That way, districts could bank construction dollars and spend them when needed.

When deciding how much to reimburse a building project, the state accounts for the wealth of the district, which means the moratorium hurts poorer districts more than others, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. Those districts may count on receiving up to 50 percent reimbursement for construction.