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Impending school construction project funds in Pennsylvania pipeline

| Thursday, July 31, 2014, 11:03 p.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 Department of Education. 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 the fiscal year.

Given the extensive backlog and a modest increase in the state budget, districts locked in are not optimistic that they'll see cash soon.

“We're not holding our breath waiting,” said Brett Lago, business manager at Penn-Trafford School District. “It's so backlogged, we're not going to count on receiving any money.”

Ryan Manzer, business manager for Freeport Area School District, said his district is on the hook for a $35 million middle school. Two other projects bank on PlanCon reimbursement, having entered the process long ago, 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 acronym 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: Allegheny Valley, Avonworth, Bethel Park, Deer Lakes, McKeesport Area, Montour, Moon Area, Mt. Lebanon, North Hills, Penn Hills, Pittsburgh, Plum, Quaker Valley and South Fayette.

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

West Jefferson Hills Superintendent Michael Panza started planning months ago for a $70 million to $75 million replacement for Thomas Jefferson High School. He was hoping for the best, he said.

“It was always the district's intent to follow the PlanCon process, so if anything happened under this administration or a future administration, we'd be ready with all the paperwork,” Panza said. “We're glad to see that it's back, and hopefully (funding) will be there in the long term.”

Five projects entered the approval process since the moratorium was lifted on July 1, Eller said.

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.

When the moratorium took effect, some districts included the anticipated funding when budgeting and covered the gap with other money.

“I'm confident we'll get it; it's just a matter of where we are in the queue,” said Brad Waters, director of fiscal management at Avonworth School District.

Waters left a budgetary hole for about $100,000 in PlanCon money owed this year, which he said should pass an audit. If the money does not materialize, the $27 million budget has about $3 million in reserve to cover it, he said.

“We had to fill that hole in the budget,” said Cissy Bowman, spokeswoman for Mt. Lebanon School District, which included an anticipated $643,000 payment in its 2014-15 budget. The state owes Mt. Lebanon about $1.8 million in back payments, she said.

“I don't know where we are in the so-called pipeline,” Bowman said. “We hope the additional money (in the state budget) will help.”

Megan Harris and Matthew Santoni are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Harris at 412-388-5815 or mharris @tribweb.com and Santoni at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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