A preschool classroom at Whiting Lane Elementary School in West Hartford West Hartford Public Schools
A preschool classroom at Whiting Lane Elementary School in West Hartford. West Hartford was included in a list of school districts that face steep costs for improving their air quality systems. West Hartford Public Schools

A growing coalition of municipalities, teachers, school administrators and others challenged Gov. Ned Lamont Thursday to enhance state funding to improve school air management systems as Connecticut grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the state’s Council of Small Towns both objected this summer upon learning that existing school construction policy limits when state funds can be used to help towns pay for new ventilation, air conditioning and air quality control systems.

Thursday they were joined by the state’s two largest teachers’ unions — the Connecticut Education Association and AFT CT — the statewide associations for municipal school boards and for school superintendents, and CSEA-SEIU Local 2001, which represents teaching assistants in public schools.

“There is an overwhelming need for funding from the state to municipalities and their boards of education to upgrade HVAC systems to ensure adequate air quality in public schools as Connecticut continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Joe DeLong, CCM’s executive director. “This dire situation cannot just be left to property taxpayers to shoulder the fiscal burden. … It is frankly bizarre that the state recognizes an end of life for a roof or a window but believes an air quality system never requires updates or replacement,” DeLong said.

The pandemic has revealed air quality issues that urgently need to be addressed, coalition members said, noting that the problem also extends beyond simply combating the coronavirus. Federal environmental officials have acknowledged that poor air quality is a contributing factor to chronic absenteeism and long-term health issues both for students and school staff.

But the Lamont administration warned this past summer that the alternative is a major new expense for which Connecticut has not prepared.

Connecticut currently reimburses communities for between 10% and 71% of new construction and wide-scale renovation projects designed to last 20 years or longer, depending largely upon a community’s wealth.

If a district wants to perform a smaller project — such as replacing or upgrading a heating/ventilation system — the entire cost is borne locally.

Coventry municipal and school officials learned that earlier this summer when the state balked at funding a share of a ventilation system upgrade for the middle and high schools. The town, which already has begun roof replacement work on those units, wanted to tackle the air management issue as well but learned the overall scope wasn’t deemed a wide-scale renovation project — and that the ventilation upgrade costs were a local responsibility.

CCM and the rest of the coalition released a list Thursday of Coventry and 10 other communities that face steep costs as they try to upgrade air quality in their local schools amidst the pandemic.

Most incurred or projected expenses were in the millions, with some in the tens of millions, depending largely on the number of buildings needing air system upgrades.

Besides Coventry, the communities cited were Clinton, Guilford, Madison, Milford, New Britain, New Haven, Newtown, Norwich, Stonington and West Hartford.

Tbe governor’s office did not comment Thursday immediately after the coalition’s announcement.

But Kostantinos Diamantis, who is Lamont’s deputy budget director and also has overseen the state’s school construction program for the past six years, has said a big part of the problem is that many communities have deferred maintenance on their schools for too long, and that includes the air management systems.

“There are some districts that haven’t touched their schools in 40 years,” Diamantis told the CT Mirror in late August. “The local level needs to belly up to the bar. … The cities have an obligation to maintain those buildings.”

CCM and the Council of Small Towns appealed to the Lamont administration in late summer to see if more flexibility could be built into the state’s school construction cost-sharing policies.

“Our outreach has been met with resistance and frankly comments that have been both unproductive, disingenuous and snarky,” DeLong said, adding it’s time for the legislature to get involved. Lamont administration officials “have made it clear that when it comes to air quality for our children and educators they are more interested in finger pointing than partnering to resolve the issue,” DeLong added.

Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, who co-chairs the Public Health Committee, has said that funding all air system costs for schools and other facilities statewide would add hundreds of millions of dollars of annual costs.

And given that Connecticut finances these projects over years or decades by issuing bonds on Wall Street, the interest component would make the impact even worse.

But Steinberg said legislators should try to find some middle ground next session, possibly a program to offer even modest incentives to help communities to upgrade or retrofit existing air quality systems.

For more than a decade, Connecticut governors have faced pressure from the legislature to curtail surging costs in one of the most generous school construction cost-sharing programs in the country.

With about $27 billion in bonded debt involving all types of capital projects — and more than $90 billion in unfunded obligations after factoring in pension and retirement health care programs — Connecticut owes more per capita than most other states in the nation.

And Connecticut’s population grew by a meager 0.09% over the past decade, the fourth-slowest of all states, according to an analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts. That means school buildings in many parts of Connecticut are under-utilized.

Connecticut spent about $450 million last year supporting projects in local and regional districts and at the state’s technical high schools. That’s roughly $800 million less than before he began overseeing the program six years ago.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.