How much will state gain from Obama school construction plan?

WASHINGTON–Proponents of President Barack Obama’s $25 billion school construction plan have billed it as a doubly-good deal: American school kids would get spiffier schools and construction workers would get much-needed jobs.

“Basic infrastructure is critically important to our economics and to our kids’ future,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a 3rd District Democrat who began drafting a school construction bill well before Obama made it centerpiece of his $447 billion jobs package last week.

At a news conference this week, DeLauro pointed to figures showing that nationwide, there’s an estimated $270 billion in deferred school maintenance and repair work. And according to White House estimates, Connecticut would get $185 million in federal school construction funds, which would support as many as 2,400 jobs.

“It’s something that a rural or an urban or a suburban district might find very attractive,” said Mark Linabury, a spokesman for Connecticut’s Department of Education.

But there’s some question about how much of a need there is in Connecticut for a massive school construction program–and how much of a boon the president’s package would provide to the state. For starters, under the White House and DeLauro’s plan, 40 percent of the new federal money would go to the nation’s 100 highest-need school district. Connecticut doesn’t have any districts on that list, which is based on the number of children living below the poverty line.

In addition, Connecticut’s state legislature has generously funded school renovation and construction projects across the state for many years. So while state officials say that any new federal aid would help ease Connecticut’s budget crunch, the state’s robust program has kept the school construction backlog to a minimum.

“The state has spent hundreds of millions of dollars… an extraordinary amount of money assisting towns in building new facilities,” said state Sen. Andrea Stillman D-Waterford, co-chair’s the legislature’s Education Committee. Until a couple of years ago, “We had such a boom that to me it became, how much more is there to do?”

She noted that most other states don’t offer their local education agencies such a healthy match for construction projects, and in some states, municipalities have to foot 100 percent of the bill for such initiatives. “Our program is unique,” Stillman said.

The state currently pays between 10 and 70 percent of municipal school construction costs, with poorer districts getting a bigger state match.

Whether it’s an urgent repair or a long-term renovation, “the legislature has never said no,” said David Wedge, the former chief of Connecticut’s Bureau of School Facilities who now works as a consultant for the state Department of Education.

That’s not to say, Wedge and others quickly added, that additional federal dollars aren’t needed or wouldn’t be put to good use. The state funding boom of recent years has begun to shrink a bit, with the legislature approving a 10 percent reduction in its matching contribution to localities. At the same time, local officials are having a harder time winning support from voters for school rehabs, as communities recoil from new bonding or tax initiatives aimed at covering any local share of a project.

“Because the economy has been so tough and because the finances for municipalities have been so tight, many local officials have been extremely cautious about putting school construction projects up for a referendum,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford and co-chairman of the committee. “In this climate… additional federal funds that could defray local costs would be extremely helpful.”

Stillman agreed, saying a federal school construction proposal could help ease the financial pressure at both the state and local levels.

Linabury said he didn’t have any figures on the number of applications flowing into the education agency. But others said they’ve seen evidence demonstrating a reluctance at the local level to pursue needed school upgrades.

“There was until the last couple of years, quite a bit of activity in school districts, but I’ve been told that in the last year or so, the number of applications for state reimbursement has fallen off noticeably,” said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

“It’s hard to get referenda passed, so school districts are strategically saying ‘We’ll live with what we have for a couple years and hope the economy improves’,” Cirasuolo said. “If the federal government were able to get some money to supplement what the state is doing… I think that would spur some new applications” by local districts.

Linabury said there’s currently $350 million in proposed projects that are awaiting state authorization. Those include, for example, a $25 million proposed magnet school in Hartford, and two high school renovations in Meridian.

He said it’s hard to quantify each district’s to-do list. But, he said, “clearly there are pockets of need that vary from district to district.”

The White House proposal, outlined in Obama’s jobs speech last Thursday, mirrors a bill that DeLauro and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, already had in the works called the Fix America’s Schools Today Act (the FAST Act). It would authorize $25 billion for school renovation and modernization, including technology upgrades, new science labs, or basic repairs. The funds could not be used to build new schools.

Forty percent of the money, or $10 billion, would be allocated to the neediest schools in the U.S. So, for example, urban schools in Cleveland, Ohio could get nearly $130 million under the proposal. But no Connecticut schools meets that poverty threshold.

The other 60 percent, or $15 billion, would be doled out to state education departments. States would be required to direct half the funding to local school districts on a formula basis, and the other half through competitive grants targeted to the most high-need districts, with a priority for rural districts. DeLauro said that every school would get at least $10,000.

A second component would provide $5 billion in funding for community colleges across the state, which DeLauro said would translate into $38 million for Connecticut community colleges.

DeLauro shrugged off questions about whether a federal infusion was needed for Connecticut school construction projects, saying that school officials in the state told her they were excited about the proposal.

She noted that schools in Connecticut are old, and many have highly inefficient heating and air conditioning systems. If schools were able to make energy-efficiency upgrades with this new money, she and Brown said, that could save every school a projected $100,000 annually in maintenance costs. That would then free up funding for more teachers, new computers, or better textbooks.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, echoed that argument, noting that many Connecticut schools were built in the 1970s, with big windows and flat, black-top roofs. “There’s no question there’s a generational upgrade that’s overdue, particularly in terms of green energy technology,” he said.

At the same time, he acknowledged that any current funding shortfall in the state is playing out more at the local level, where there’s resistance among hard-hit residents to approve more funding for construction projects. He noted that in Old Lyme, for example, it took the town three tries to pass a school-funding related referendum.

“The problem is getting the local share,” Courtney said, not necessarily the state’s match.

“People are very gun shy right now about any large-scale commitment,” said Elizabeth M. Osga, the Old Lyme school superintendent. Her town’s referendum finally passed in 2008, but she said if it were held today, it could have been a much closer vote-or even another defeat.

Now that the project is underway, she said, there’s been a significant benefit to launching a major renovation project in this sluggish economy. The school district got low bids on the project, and there haven’t been the usual delays.

“The price came in significantly less than we had estimated, and we’ve had a high-quality workforce without any delays,” Osga said. She said the project could come in several million dollars under budget.

Fleischmann said the benefit of any federal bill would depend in large part on how much flexibility the states are given in awarding the money to local education agencies. He said a bill that allows states to could be “quite generous” with school districts would be best, so they could lower the local matching requirements.

“That would catch a lot of districts’ interest,” he said. “It could greatly lighten the local cost burden.”

Stillman said the infusion of funds could help pave the way for all-day kindergarten, among other priorities. “One of the impediments to having all day kindergarten is the fact that there isn’t enough space,” she noted. It could also help school officials expand schools to accommodate new early childhood programs.

The political prospects for DeLauro’s proposal are murky at best. Republicans have already taken sharp aim at this element of Obama’s proposal.

“More stimulus spending is not the right solution to our nation’s jobs crisis,” John Kline, chairman of the House education committee, said in a statement after Obama’s speech last week. “Common sense tells us that putting the federal government in the business of school construction will only lead to higher costs and more regulations.”

But DeLauro said she was optimistic, arguing that the twin goals of creating better learning environments for kids and kick-starting the economy would give the bill extra momentum.