More schools seek reimbursement from Pa. for construction work

Applications are up from past years to beat deadline

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From now until the end of June, school districts and career technology centers won't be able to seek state reimbursement for construction and renovation projects if they haven't already asked the state.

A moratorium proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett and enacted into law went into effect last Monday.

Across the state, 87 applications -- including four in Allegheny County school districts -- were filed from July 1 to the deadline, a number that apparently is greater than usual.

About 70 are typically filed in a year, said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

State reimbursement for projects ranges from zero to 100 percent, Mr. Eller said. Schools not seeking state reimbursement can continue with their projects.

In his budget proposal in February, Mr. Corbett called for the moratorium to see "what role, if any, state government should have in the area of school district operations."

The moratorium law calls for recommendations by May 1 following a review of the current process, including "an analysis of impacting local factors, including, but not limited to, tax effort and building requirement."

In Allegheny County, the three districts that filed by the deadline are Montour for a new elementary school; West Allegheny for two projects, renovations at McKee and Wilson elementary schools; and Woodland Hills for renovations at Woodland Hills Academy.

Montour is planning to build a $55 million elementary school on the high school campus on Clever Road to open in 2015-16. The board approved filing the preliminary plans Sept. 27, just days before the deadline.

West Allegheny and Woodland Hills are reviewing their proposed projects.

West Allegheny superintendent John DeSanti said the district did a feasibility study, but the board is still discussing what the district can afford of the proposed $27 million plan that was submitted.

He said leaking roofs at both McKee and Wilson need to be replaced. If they are replaced as part of a major renovation, some state reimbursement may be available. A larger renovation would include electrical work, new windows, new door hardware and other improvements.

"We haven't decided if we're going to do the full scope," he said.

He said the board will discuss it over "the next couple of months" and then, if it decides to move forward, will hire an architect.

Woodland Hills superintendent Alan Johnson said the project is tentatively a $23 million renovation of Woodland Hills Academy in Turtle Creek.

"We are looking at a long-range plan for the district anyway -- one that will undoubtedly include some school closures and/or renovations -- so we pushed our planning ahead a little to make this date," Mr. Johnson said.

The academy improvements would include elevators, new steps and doors to make the building fully accessible as well as relocating a library, adding classroom space, expanding the cafeteria, updating the technology infrastructure and replacing the plumbing, electrical and heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems.

"The overall thrust is to increase the building's capacity to be able to support up to 800 students while also adding dedicated spaces for music, arts and technology instruction," Mr. Johnson said.

He said most of the funding is in place, but the district also wants "to examine options for our other buildings and administrative offices, and that effort is still in its nascent stages."

He doesn't expect construction before next summer at the earliest.

Other applicants in the region include Greater Latrobe for Latrobe Elementary; Penn-Trafford for Trafford middle and elementary; and Slippery Rock Area for Moraine Elementary and the high school.

No applicants are from Beaver or Washington counties.

Even if schools met the Oct. 1 deadline, they are not guaranteed to receive money.

This year, the state has allocated about $296 million for school construction reimbursement. That doesn't mean there is enough money for all. More than 200 projects are in various stages of the approval process.

"The department does have a limited amount of dollars available," said David Davare, director of research services for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. "There are some districts that are ahead of those other ones in the pipeline. We have concerns about continued funding."

Ron Cowell, president of the Harrisburg-based Education and Leadership Policy Center, said some school officials are concerned about whether the state will allocate enough money for schools' capital needs or whether it will extend the moratorium.

"This whole idea of the state accepting responsibility for some financial share of projects again comes into question," he said.

"In many school districts, where there are antiquated facilities or facilities that are unsafe or simply can't accommodate the new technology, or those instances where there is a growing school district and they need to do additional construction -- these districts are put into a terrible position about how they're going to pay for necessary construction costs."

About $1.5 billion a year in school projects are done annually, according to Chad Harvey, executive director of Mid Atlantic BX, an association representing the architectural, construction and engineering industry.

He said he is "cautiously optimistic" about the review process but is concerned that budget constraints don't lead to the elimination of the reimbursement program.

"We think this program does a tremendous amount of good, especially for rural districts. It has a very positive impact on the construction industry as well," he said.

education

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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