BOSTON (AP) In what may be one of the more ambitious goals of his administration, Gov. Mitt Romney is pushing a plan to radically overhaul the way the state helps local cities and towns pay for new school buildings.
If he can persuade Democratic lawmakers to go along — and if his plan works — Romney can claim success at reforming a program that has been both praised as a key source of education aid and criticized as a “budget-buster.”
The spiraling price tag last year forced lawmakers to declare a moratorium on any expansion of the School Building Assistance program, launched in 1948 to help communities build schools for the baby boomers.
Keeping a moratorium in place is not an option, Romney said.
“We need to have ongoing school renovation. We need to have better classrooms. We have some schools that are horribly out of date,” Romney told the Massachusetts Municipal Association Jan. 16, a day after delivering his State of the State address.
Under the current program, considered the most generous in the country, communities receive an average of approximately 70-percent reimbursement from the state for the cost of new or renovated schools. The payments are usually made over 20 years.
There are 748 projects currently receiving payments and an additional 420 schools on a waiting list. It will cost taxpayers approximately $11 billion to finish paying for the projects on both lists.
Romney’s plan would speed construction of projects on both lists. For the projects already receiving money, Romney would issue state debt to pay off the remaining amount owed to each community immediately.
Communities with school projects on the waiting list would also receive a lump sum payment up front. Romney hopes to clear the wait list by the 2009 fiscal year.
“When you’re ready to go, boom, here’s the money,” he said.
To pay for the changes, Romney said the state should take advantage of lower interest rates to move from 20-year bonds to 40-year bonds and use the savings to float more bonds and pay off the school projects faster. The school building program would be moved from the state’s annual operating budget to its capital budget.
Also key to the program is what Romney called “construction reform,” including encouraging more open competition and easing bidding restrictions.
While some of Romney’s proposed changes will likely raise the ire of unions, local officials praised the plan.
“Everything he said is just what we need. It’s a brilliant plan,” said North Adams Mayor John Barrett, who has two schools on the waiting list.
Fall River Mayor Edward M. Lambert Jr., with five schools on the waiting list, also praised the proposal.
“The notion of getting the cash up front, knocking these projects off the list, having the state doing the borrowing over 40 years — it’s very creative,” he said.
Democratic lawmakers, who will have the final say over Romney’s plan, agreed the school building assistance program must be overhauled, but said they need to study Romney’s plan.
“I’m glad he’s focusing on it. The House has been working on it too,” said House Education Chairwoman Marie St. Fleur, D-Boston. “It’s a huge cost that we have to figure out how to absorb, but it’s a reality we need to address. Some of our schools are over 100 years old.”
Rick Musiol, spokesman for Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, said the Senate also is focused on the problem.
“The senator is pleased to see the governor is joining the Legislature in making this a priority,” he said. “All parties agree that the devil is in the details.”