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School funding pipeline reopened

By From Staff Reports
Sunday, Aug. 3, 2014, 12:51 a.m.

Legislators let a two-year moratorium blocking state funding for new school construction projects expire last month, expanding a financing process that is overcommitted by $1.7 billion statewide.

The state's 11-step approval pipeline contains 340 building projects, of which about 200 remain bottlenecked at the last step before the state pays school districts, said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Education Department.

Even as the process was opened to new applications, Eller said the budget for payouts increased to $306 million, a bump of about $10 million in this fiscal year.

Given the large backlog and a modest increase in the state budget, districts locked in aren't optimistic they'll receive cash soon.

Ryan Manzer, Freeport Area School District business manager, said his district is on the hook for a $33 million middle school, on which it broke ground in July and plans to open in 2015.

District officials have estimated $4.4 million of the cost would be reimbursed by the state.

Two earlier elementary renovation projects bank on about $1.9 million in reimbursement money, he said.

“We planned to not receive that reimbursement in next year's budget,” Manzer said. “Until we get notification that money's available, we're not going to count it.”

PlanCon, the Education Department's shorthand for Planning and Construction Workbook, stopped taking applications when legislators stalled them in October 2012. Applications submitted before that date progressed slowly but hit a logjam because requests for money outstripped available funding.

At least 14 Allegheny County districts are among 200 waiting for payments, including Allegheny Valley, Deer Lakes and Plum.

Allegheny Valley Business Manager Brad Rau said the district has yet to be reimbursed for the Springdale Junior-Senior High School $18 million renovation project that was completed about two years ago.

Rau estimated the district should receive a total of about $1.7 million from the state over the life of the bonds used to pay for the project. He said the district had expected to receive about $70,000 per year over the past two school years.

He said district officials don't know when they might start receiving the state's share.

Deer Lakes' business manager was out of the office last week and no information was immediately available on the district's PlanCon involvement. Plum's business manager and superintendent did not respond to requests for comment.

Kiski Area and Armstrong are two other local districts stuck in the PlanCon backlog.

Peggy Gillespie, Kiski Area's business manager, said the district expected to be eligible for about $6.1 million in state money when it borrowed $30 million in 2010 for the elementary renovation projects.

She said nearly 80 percent of the reimbursement is related to work at Kiski Area Upper Elementary School (the former North Washington Elementary) in Washington Township.

The district's applications for the state share, expected to be about $245,000 per year for 25 years, has been stuck at the latter steps of the PlanCon process, Gillespie said.

Armstrong School District is waiting for about $1.7 million in reimbursements from the state, according to Superintendent Stan Chapp. That includes $1 million associated with the ongoing Armstrong Junior-Senior High School project and $700,000 for finished construction at Lenape Elementary and the West Hills Elementary and Intermediate schools' campus.

“It all comes down to if the state puts down enough money to address reimbursements across the state,” Chapp said. “It's a matter of how far their allotment goes, and where we are located in line. And we're not sure of either of those factors.”

Armstrong finished the $8.7 million renovation of West Hills Elementary and $15.8 million construction of West Hills Intermediate in 2008. The same year, the district also finished a $19.8 million renovation at Lenape Elementary School.

The $55 million Armstrong Junior-Senior High School project in Manor Township reached its halfway point and is expected to open next year, Chapp said.

The state approved the district's plans for all three projects before Gov. Tom Corbett began cutting back on new construction in 2012.

“We're hopeful this will help us at some point,” Chapp said. “We just don't know when that point is.”

“Districts will think long and hard before deciding whether to engage in a school construction project seeking state reimbursement,” said Hannah Barrick, advocacy director for the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials, in an email. “It is uncertain when they will actually receive reimbursement for any project.”

Five projects entered the approval process since the moratorium was lifted July 1, according to Eller, the Education Department spokesman.

Projects are approved for reimbursement based on whether their paperwork and documents are submitted, he said.

“Generally, the projects that have been waiting the longest will be the first ones processed,” he said.

Trib Total Media staff writers Liz Hayes, Jodi Weigand, Brad Pedersen, Megan Harris and Matthew Santoni contributed.



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