Washington –- Connecticut’s congressional delegation wants to find a way to obtain federal dollars to replace Sandy Hook Elementary School with a new facility, but that will be a tough task.
The biggest obstacle to finding federal money for the construction of a new school, estimated to cost $40 million to$60 million, is Congress’ ban on earmarks, or special projects. Earmarks once allowed lawmakers to steer millions of dollars to pet projects, but no more.
A Newtown task force recommended that the town demolish the existing Sandy Hook school, where 20 children and six educators were fatally shot Dec. 14, and build a new facility on that site.
So members of the delegation are coming up with creative ways to circumvent the ban.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., offered an amendment last week to the reauthorization of the education bill known as “No Child Left Behind” that would give the Department of Education authority to provide grants to schools “in which the learning environment has been disrupted due to a violent or traumatic crisis that took place on the school campus.”
The legislation, approved by a voice vote in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, skips around the earmark ban by opening the program to all schools that qualify. But in reality, the bill would apply to few schools besides Sandy Hook Elementary.
“There is a recognition that Sandy Hook Elementary cannot open again,” Murphy said in his efforts to convince skeptical committee members.
He argued that Newtown “is a small town that does not have the resources” to build a new school. Murphy won the panel’s support, but the education bill has yet to be approved by the full Senate.
Then the House must approve the measure. And even if it does, money for the program must be appropriated in a budget-cutting climate on Capitol Hill.
Murphy, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and all other members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation have also sponsored similar legislation that would modify an existing Education Department program, known as Project SERV, so it could provide Newtown with school construction grants.
Last month, Newton received $1.3 million from Project SERV to help “with ongoing recovery efforts following the shootings.”
But the program isn’t authorized to fund school construction. The legislation promoted by Connecticut’s lawmakers would change it so it would also pay for construction at schools that have suffered a crises like a shooting or suicides.
But Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of both the HELP committee and the Appropriations subcommittee on education, said the program doesn’t have enough funding to provide school construction money.
“There’s just not that much money in this account,” Harkin said. “I understand what (Senator Murphy) is trying to do, I’m sympathetic to that. Maybe we can get some more money in appropriations … I don’t think so, though.”
Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Esty, whose 5th District includes Newtown, tried another tactic last week. But it failed.
Esty attempted to win House approval of an amendment that would give preference in contract bidding to contractors who make cash or in-kind donations “to help support the rebuilding of elementary and secondary schools where the learning environment has been disrupted because of a violent or traumatic crisis.”
The House Rules Committee, which decides which amendments would be considered on the House floor, rejected Esty’s amendment.
“The U.S. government should be in the business of determining which contractor is the best, not whether it gives to schools or not,” a Republican aide said.
Melanie Sloan, executive director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said, “It sounds likes (Esty’s) heart is in the right place,” but her amendment was misguided.
“We want the procurement process to be based on quality and price,” Sloan said, adding, “There are a lot of good causes out there.”
Loren Thompson, an expert on defense contracting at the Lexington Institute, a Washington, D.C.-area think tank, also said Esty’s was a bad idea, especially since the Pentagon has struggled to make the procurement process transparent, fair and merit-based.
“The Department of Defense has spent decades refining its action for selecting contractors,” Thompson said. “If you are going to throw Sandy Hook into the mix, why don’t you also throw in contractors who support Republicans, or Democrats?”
The state is also likely to struggle to find money to rebuild the Sandy Hook School.
Gov. Dannel Malloy said last week that the State Bond Commission would approve the release of $750,000 to begin design and plan work on a new school. But tens of millions of dollars more will be needed to finish the project.