Funding the 500: The unknown price tag of repairing Pa.’s deteriorating school facilities

‘How are we supposed to make intelligent choices if we don’t know the depth of the problem?’ one school superintendent asked

By: - Tuesday June 20, 2023 7:10 am

Funding the 500: The unknown price tag of repairing Pa.’s deteriorating school facilities

‘How are we supposed to make intelligent choices if we don’t know the depth of the problem?’ one school superintendent asked

By: - 7:10 am

Penn Wood High School in the William Penn School District. Landsdowne, Pennsylvania on June 15, 2023. (Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star)

Penn Wood High School in the William Penn School District. Landsdowne, Pennsylvania on June 15, 2023. (Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star)

Crumbling wheelchair ramps. Closets converted into classrooms. Make-shift room dividers.

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court President Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer’s February ruling declaring the state’s education funding system unconstitutional painted a vivid picture — in words and photographs — of the challenges facing educators as they toil in a historically underfunded system.

Across its sprawling 786-pages, the Cohn Jubelirer ruling devoted nearly 10 pages to the condition of school facilities throughout the state. She also noted testimony from the plaintiffs in the case, who described leaking roofs, a lack of heating and air conditioning, and the need for mold and asbestos abatement.

Details of the building conditions at King Elementary School in Lancaster, PA on May 30, 2023 (Photo by Amanda Berg, for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star).

“One teacher testified that “in [her] first grade classroom[,] you could see the sky. There was a hole in the ceiling . . . that you could literally look up and see the sky.”

Now policymakers have been tasked with literally filling that hole. 

“It is not enough that the facilities in which students learn are ‘generally safe’ as Legislative Respondents contend,” Cohn Jubelirer wrote in her ruling, concluding that school facilities need to be “safe and adequate.”

As state officials and lawmakers begin the herculean task of fixing the funding system for the commonwealth’s public schools, tackling how best to fund badly needed school facility maintenance, repair, and construction projects will be a major focus. 

The PlanCon Program

Prior to 2016, when school districts across the commonwealth took on a major construction project, they could apply for partial reimbursement from the Pennsylvania Department of Education to offset the costs of the project. 

The process and related forms are referred to as PlanCon, or the Planning and Construction Workbook, which provided guidelines that school districts had to follow to apply for reimbursement. PlanCon documented everything from the district’s planning process, including understanding the need for the project, to compliance with relevant laws and regulations.

The PlanCon program was placed on a legislative moratorium in 2016. 

However, the Education Department continues to process and approve projects submitted to the department prior to 2016-17, Jessica Sites, the agency’s director of the Bureau of Budget and Fiscal Management, testified at a Senate Education Committee hearing in late May. 

To date, the agency has funded “about 2,800 bonds for 430 school districts and career and technical centers at an estimated cost of $235 million,” according to Sites, who told the Senate committee that funding for PlanCon comes from a mix of funding sources, including an annual appropriation under the Authority Rentals and Sinking Fund, and bond funding, authorized by borrowing language in the 2016 iteration of a piece of budget-enabling legislation known as the Fiscal Code.

With a pause on new PlanCon reimbursement still in place, the Education Department says it’s unable to help school districts with the costs associated with any new, large-scale construction projects.

A Lack of Information 

The problem isn’t just allocating funds to school facility repairs. There’s also a lack of information about school facility needs across the state and the estimated dollar amount it would take to address them. 

At a Senate Education Committee hearing on school facilities, the panel’s chairperson, Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, asked Sites to provide the committee with the cost of school facility repairs and maintenance needs statewide. 

But Sites said that the Education Department has historically had very low response rates to its voluntary surveys sent to districts regarding facility conditions. 

“Everyone seems to agree that we have a serious problem here, but as of yet no one has been able to tell me how big the problem is,” Argall said, adding that he didn’t know how the agency could collect data on the condition of school facilities without the use of  “a mandate with teeth.”

Dr. Daniel McGarry, superintendent of Upper Darby School District in Delaware County, told state lawmakers at the same hearing that there is currently no statewide, running list of facility needs at Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts. And without that, there is no way of knowing the full extent of the problem, and the amount of money that would be needed to adequately address it. 

“How are we supposed to make intelligent choices if we don’t know the depth of the problem?” McGarry asked. 

Legislative Solutions?

With the monumental task of repairing, remodeling, and building new school facilities in front of them, school administrators have asked lawmakers and state officials to be “a partner” in school maintenance discussions and outcomes. 

The Legislature has an “opportunity to re-engage in school facility support,” Jeff Mummert, business administrator at South Western School District in York County, told lawmakers at the hearing. 

Those words seemed to resonate with Argall, who announced legislation soon after the hearing that would require school districts to submit building condition assessments to the Pennsylvania Department of Education every five years, and would make districts that fail to submit the assessment ineligible for the grant funding. 

“With billions of federal dollars given to schools for COVID-related expenses, including building improvements, and requests for more money from the state, this information is of vital importance, as soon as possible,” Argall wrote in a co-sponsorship memo

State Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Delaware, who also serves on the Senate Education Committee, announced in January that he would reintroduce legislation to “restart” the commonwealth’s PlanCon program. 

“After nearly 10 years of absence, it is time to restart PlanCon by finally appropriating funding for school construction and facility renovation,” Kearney wrote in a memo seeking legislative support.

Lawmakers have also introduced ways to help schools efficiently modernize their facilities.

State Rep. Liz Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, hosted a press conference in the Capitol rotunda on Wednesday, June 14, 2023 to call for legislation and funding for school facility maintenance and repairs (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).

State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, has proposed House Bill 137, the “Solar for Schools Act,” which would create a grant program to put solar panels on public schools and universities, helping to reduce school energy costs and alleviate local tax burdens.

Fiedler said the legislation would cover up to 50% of the cost of eligible projects and utilize federal Inflation Reduction Act funds to cover the remaining installation costs. 

“This legislation has bipartisan support thanks to its benefits of creating family-sustaining jobs, saving schools and taxpayers money, and increasing Pennsylvania’s renewable energy production,” Fiedler said of the bill. “I’ve been able to see first-hand the value that solar arrays bring by reducing costs for school districts and taxpayers, limiting our carbon footprint, and creating new jobs.”

At a press conference in the Capitol earlier this month, advocates called on state lawmakers to act on legislation such as Fiedler’s, calling it “simply disgraceful” that students and educators are still fighting for a safe learning and work environment.

“It’s the year 2023 and we are here once again, having to make the case for why kids and educators deserve to learn and work in an environment that does not poison them,” Hillary Linardopoulos, legislative director for Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said.

A Budget with Buildings in Mind 

In addition to legislation to make school facilities safer for students and staff, advocates also highlighted the need for it in the proposed state budget for the new fiscal year that starts July 1.

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s proposed $44.4 billion spending plan sets aside $100 million a year over five years to a School Environmental Repairs and Improvements Fund for the abatement and remediation of environmental hazards such as lead, asbestos, and mold.

In his March 7, budget address, Shapiro described the state budget as an “opportunity” to invest in schools. 

“We must approach this responsibility with hope and ambition – because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to do right by our kids,” the Democratic governor told a joint session of the state House and Senate. “Our students should have world-class facilities that are safe and healthy, and this budget is an initial investment to get us there.” 

Democrats in the General Assembly have praised the administration’s proposed investments in schools, while also leveraging their slim, 102-101 majority in the House to push for more. 

“We are committed to finally, this year, investing state dollars to remediate and repair our schools,” Fiedler said. 

State Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York, speaks at a press conference on school facility funding at the Capitol rotunda on Wednesday, June 14, 2023 (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).

Her Democratic colleague, York County state Rep. Carol Hill-Evans called the budget “a starting point” to addressing a laundry list of education funding needs. 

“We need to step up our investments in this budget because we must ensure that schools are adequately funded,” Hill-Evans said. “What are we waiting for?”

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.