State spending on school construction dropped sharply over last decade
A Washington D.C. think tank recently released figures that show Connecticut’s capital spending on school construction dropped by 45% from 2008 to 2017.
The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities also said that Connecticut was one of five states that cut school capital spending “drastically” — by half or more — as a share of the state’s economy.
Michael Leachman, senior director of state fiscal research for the center, said he considers the economy measurement important because it shows that the state “has cut support for school capital spending deeply even after you account for the fact that its economy was really hurt by the last downturn.”
He said that schools need to be of “good quality and safe and well-heated or cooled or whatever. The lights need to be on. It’s pretty straightforward and if you cut the revenue you have available, you’re going to be less able to do those things.”
By the center’s figures, Connecticut’s capital spending on school construction declined from $826 million in 2008 to $452.9 million in 2017, while the percentage of the state’s gross domestic product going toward school construction dropped from .34% to .17 %.
Connecticut’s own figures on school construction expenditure differ a bit from the figures used in the Center’s report, but also reflect a major drop in outlays from the school construction grant program, falling by more than half from nearly $700 million in 2008 to $330.9 million in 2019.
But Konstantinos Diamantis, director of the school construction grants and review program in the state Department of Administrative Services, said the decline in spending signals stricter controls over the program — not a decline in the state’s commitment to school construction.
“No more laissez faire in submitting change orders and getting them approved. No more thinking that architects are going to draw schools haphazardly and … they are going to come back with change orders and the state of Connecticut is going to pay for it.”
Department of Administrative Services
Generally, the state provides grants to school districts on major construction projects at a rate ranging from 20% to 80%, with 10% less for new schools. A complicated formula based on a community’s wealth determines the rate of reimbursement.
“We are building as we need to build,” Diamantis said. “Every district that submits a proposal that is appropriate and justified, we’re building it.”
Diamantis said his office is tightly involved in planning, as districts determine if a project is ready to begin and has sound architectural plans.
“Do I put as many on the (priority list) as were there ten years ago? No, but the ones I put on the list are all ready to proceed.”
Projects are not placed on a priority list until they are ready to go and they must start within two years, Diamantis said, noting that every effort is made to ensure that costly change orders and other problems are avoided.
“No more laissez faire in submitting change orders and getting them approved. No more thinking that architects are going to draw schools haphazardly and think they are going to come back with change orders and the state of Connecticut is going to pay for it,” he said. “No more rushing, rushing through projects and thinking the costs are always eligible regardless of how expensive it might be.”
If school districts are suffering from the decline in capital spending, or the stricter rules, it wasn’t apparent from recent interviews with school superintendents, education advocates, and legislators.
Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said she hadn’t heard that spending on school construction is down — but she has heard that it is much more tightly controlled.
“I know that Kosta insists on superintendents being at all of the trainings for what needs to be done,” Rabinowitz said. “I dealt with that last year because in the past, it was OK to send your facilities director. Now they wanted to be sure the superintendent was there.”
Rabinowitz said she did hear some complaints at first from superintendents who felt they shouldn’t have to attend training, but said they later reported it was a worthwhile process. She hasn’t heard much else in the way of complaints about the program, but if there were problems, she said, “Trust me, they would be calling.”
Kate Carter, superintendent of South Windsor Public Schools where a three-phase, four-school construction plan is underway, said in an email that “The key to a successful partnership with [the Department of Administrative Services] is ensuring that there are open lines of communication very early in the process with a clear plan and rationale. They have been responsive and supportive as we face an unexpected significant increase in our student enrollment.”
Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said she hasn’t heard any “real concerns raised” about school construction procedures.
“I think initially when they tightened the procedures, there were some projects that had to go through the process several times before they got on the state priority list,” McCarthy said.
The co-chairmen of the legislature’s Revenue, Finance and Bonding Committee said tighter controls on school construction costs were necessary.
Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, said he saw instances over the years when a school construction job would be proposed in one way but the proponents did so “knowing they could come back and get change orders to expand. ‘Well we need this now, we need that now.’ They knew, but they didn’t put that into the original bill.”
Fonfara said school construction spending is driven by local officials.
“As school populations rise and fall, that affects school construction,” he said. “If a town is challenged fiscally, you are not going to see as many applications. The state just picks up its share. It’s not leading the charge for doing school re-construction.”
He said that efforts have also been made to ensure that districts aren’t overdoing it with costly designs. “Some schools have been Taj Mahals and do you really need that? You want quality but you don’t have to have gold-lined hallways and we were doing some of those things.”
Rep. Jason Rojas, the other co-chair of the Revenue, Finance and Bonding Committee and a Democrat from East Hartford, said he thinks that perhaps the slowdown in the construction of magnet schools has contributed to the decline in spending.
Many have also questioned the high cost of some magnet schools that include amenities such as a planetarium or a koi pond and waterfall.
“We want to build nice buildings and innovative buildings, but we also need them to be kind of functional and not have a lot of wasted space,” said Rojas. “Some of the schools have fifty foot atriums. I don’t know if people were thinking of the heating and cooling of those buildings when those projects were launched.”
Rojas said that under the tightened regulations, “I think towns probably aren’t getting what they’d like to get in every situation, but I don’t think anybody is getting kept out of the program. I think that’s something I would hear.”
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