State funds for school construction in limbo

HALIFAX, Pa. (WHTM) — The Halifax Area School District has some decisions to make. A small rural district in northern Dauphin County, enrollment is dropping and every one of its school buildings is aging.

“We’re currently performing a district-wide campus consolidation study,” superintendent Dr. Michele Orner said. “Everyone driving along on Peter’s Mountain Road has seen the beautiful upgrades we’re making to our secondary school campus, the middle and high school. The second piece of it is we’re looking at two elementary schools that we currently have; one that is (dating back to) 1958, and another that is 1968.”

The older of the two schools, Enders-Fisherville Elementary, currently houses only kindergarten and first grades. Built when George Leader was governor, the charming school surrounded by agricultural fields still features outdated slate blackboards, original asbestos tile flooring, leaky windows and a tattered curtain that hangs above the stage in the school’s “Audigymacafetorium,” a nickname Orner herself has given to the school’s multi-purpose room.

Additionally, the school is still heated by a large oil burning furnace and cooled only by ceiling fans in most classrooms. While school facilities managers have done masterful work in keeping the school safe and operational, long-term options include either closing the school completely or beginning massive renovations estimated to cost between five and seven million dollars.

“Inevitably, infrastructure doesn’t last forever,” Orner said. “It’s like the transmission in your car, it’s only going to take you so far. Good school districts are out there planning for what’s ahead.”

The ongoing secondary school campus construction with a price tag of more than $20 million wouldn’t be possible without funding from the state government. According to district business manager Mike Bower, the state program known as PlanCon (planning and construction) provides roughly $285,000 each year for the life of a 20-year bond the district is using to pay for the project.

“Without PlanCon, I would have to come up with that $285,000 somewhere else,” Bower said.

Bower says that extra revenue would likely fall on local taxpayers or come as a result of cuts to staff and programs.

“Nobody wants to see that. It ends up hurting students.”

Making things more complicated, the future of PlanCon is in limbo. Written as part of the fiscal code that makes up the yet-to-be-finalized state budget, PlanCon payments to school districts haven’t gone out yet this year.

“We owe school districts billions of dollars in payments that we need to catch up on,” state Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) said.

Grove says PlanCon as a whole is “totally broken” and needs to be reformed. He cites an overbearing application process and red tape that keeps districts waiting years for cash. While Grove says there is wide ranging support for the reforms included in his House Bill 210. The bill is awaiting state Senate approval before becoming part of the official 2015-2016 budget.

Grove says that plan to reform PlanCon would include the state borrowing about $2 billion to pay off all existing funds owed to school districts for construction projects.

“We would pay the school districts in a lump sum and clear the books,” he said.

After that, an 18-month moratorium would be placed on new PlanCon applications until the program could be evaluated and replaced with something less cumbersome and more fiscally responsible. Improvements could include changing the state reimbursement focus from new construction and renovation to repairs such as roof replacement on aging facilities, which Grove says is a more common need across the state.

While a district like Halifax would benefit from the lump sum payment of millions of dollars to be paid toward its secondary school renovation, the lengthy moratorium on PlanCon applications would surely delay any plans to improve a school like Enders-Fisherville.

While Grove says schools districts that have large construction projects pending can still qualify for PlanCon if they apply immediately, the moratorium will eventually leave some schools in the dark.

“I want to be optimistic that this 18-month moratorium is going to be what’s best for PlanCon,” Orner said, “but when we watch what’s happening in Harrisburg right now, it’s hard to trust because there’s gridlock. They agree on nothing.”

 

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