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Funding Moratorium Clouds School Building Future

Tue August 28, 2012 - Northeast Edition

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) A $300-million-a-year state program that helps school districts pay to construct or renovate buildings will soon be closed to new projects, at least temporarily, as state officials decide if it needs to be changed or eliminated.

Some districts are rushing to get their plans into the pipeline before the October start of a nine-month moratorium that was quietly enacted along with the state budget earlier this summer.

School districts already under financial pressure from growing pension obligations and state funding cuts are eyeing the moratorium warily, concerned that it could be the first step toward eventual elimination of the so-called PlanCon reimbursement.

PlanCon refers to the Education Department’s “Planning and Construction Workbook,” a complicated review that runs from justifying the need for a project to designing it, acquiring the land, building it and paying for it.

“We’re really in this incredible squeeze because we’re just trying to get through operational costs, much less construction costs,” said Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials. “Without some state support, those building projects are going to be more and more and more difficult.”

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett first raised the idea of a moratorium when he proposed a 2012-13 budget in February, but what eventually passed was scaled back so that it did not take effect until October and covered only new projects, not those already in the PlanCon pipeline.

The funding for the current year remained level — there are about 230 projects currently in PlanCon — but the moratorium is likely to mean that less construction and renovation will get under way in the coming years.

“Right now it’s a money thing,” said Steve Miskin, spokesman of the House Republican caucus. “Let’s see what needs to be done — does it need to be improved, what do we need to do or not do?”

One possibility is that the funding formula, under which more affluent districts get less support, could be changed.

But it’s also possible the entire program will be shut down. Corbett’s budget materials from February framed the coming study as a “review of the role of state government in this area of school district operations.”

“It just gives us a breather for these eight, nine months,” said Education Department spokesman Tim Eller. “To look, A, if this is something the state should be doing, and B, if any changes need to be done.”

Districts will still have pressing needs for construction and renovation, no matter what the state does with the PlanCon program, said Dave Davare, research director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. Some are currently scrambling to get in under the Oct. 1 deadline, and recent news accounts have reflected a struggle by some districts to make plans amid the uncertainty.

“We’ve got some districts with some very old buildings,” Davare said. “Then you also have some districts that, if the economy turns around, could end up being growing districts and are going to need classroom space.”

Chris Wakeley, a senior Democratic staffer on the House Education Committee, said as districts pull back for the time being, that will reverberate within the construction industry.

“Any time you put the word ’moratorium’ in, that sends a message to school districts: hold up, don’t construct, put it off,” Wakeley said.

Eller said the moratorium does not prevent a district from starting a project that does not require state support.

“I should say everything’s on the table, whether the state gets out of the business entirely, of the reimbursement process,” or changes it, Eller said.

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