Plan to fix toxic and crumbling schools passes House Education Committee with GOP reservations

‘There are a few guardrails that I believe are very important … sometimes we can govern for today without looking 10 years down the road,’ Rep. Jesse Topper said

By: - June 21, 2023 4:59 pm

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).

Republican lawmakers said on Wednesday they support spending to modernize Pennsylvania’s schools, but want to avoid repeating past mistakes in the state Education Department’s construction funding program.

The House Education Committee voted 12-9 to send Democrat-backed legislation to the full House for a vote to provide up to $250 million to make improvements and repairs and remediate toxins such as mold and asbestos in Pennsylvania’s aging school buildings. 

GOP committee members voted against the bill, as written, after the ranking Republican, Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, said he needs assurance the state will be able to meet its obligations under the program.

“There are a few guardrails that I believe are very important,” Topper said. “I’ve lived through when schools are in a pipeline that no longer has funding. And sometimes we can govern for today without looking 10 years down the road of what it could look like.”

Since 1973, school districts have been able to apply to the Education Department for reimbursement of school construction expenses through its School Facilities and Construction Workbook program, called PlanCon for short.

Dwindling funding for PlanCon under former Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration caused a backlog of projects for which school districts were waiting to be reimbursed. During the nine-month budget impasse at the start of Gov. Tom Wolf’s first term, funding for PlanCon was eliminated entirely in the 2015-16 state budget.

Instead, the General Assembly reached an agreement to authorize up to $2.5 billion in borrowing to reimburse districts for projects that were already underway. A moratorium on new applications has been in place since 2016.

“We have schools across the state that are filled with mold, lead paint, asbestos, that don’t have access to the internet, that are not accessible to students in wheelchairs or other special needs. And it’s about time that the commonwealth starts investing in this,” Education Committee Chairperson Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, who is the bill’s prime sponsor, said.

Originally, only school construction and reconstruction projects were eligible for funding through PlanCon. A maintenance program was added in 2019 to include projects such as heating and air conditioning upgrades, plumbing repairs, and health and safety improvements.

House Bill 1408 expands the range of projects to include accessibility and technology improvements.

It also creates a funding mechanism under the Commonwealth Funding Authority, an independent agency of the Department of Community and Economic Development, to award grants for projects approved by the Education Department.

Similar legislation has been introduced in the state Senate by Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Delaware, with bipartisan support.

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget proposal introduced in March included $100 million over five years for remediating environmental hazards in schools. House Democrats earlier this month passed their own budget bill that raised the amount for school modernization to $250 million.

Sharon Ward, senior policy director for the Education Law Center, said that the proposal from House Democrats is a start, but with no funding for new school construction projects in a decade, the need is significant and the scope is unclear.

“What we need is an understanding of the scope of the problem,” Ward said. “There have been some conversations about having a statewide facilities assessment to help understand exactly where our needs are, and then to plan accordingly as to how you can actually meet those needs.”

Reps. Joe Webster, D-Montgomery, and Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, are co-sponsors of legislation that would direct the Education Department to survey school districts about their facilities needs and prepare a report on the expected capital costs through 2026. 

Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, held a hearing in May that highlighted the lack of information about school facilities needs. He has proposed similar legislation in the Senate.

Among the changes Topper said he wants before voting for the school improvement bill would be a defined timeframe for school districts to apply for funding. 

“We don’t know what our economic realities are going to be moving forward,” Topper told the Capital-Star, noting that the state is sitting on a record surplus because of one-time federal pandemic aid.

“I think it is wise to use some of that one-time money in one-time building investments,” Topper said.

How much will ultimately be included in the budget, which is due June 30, has been a subject of discussions, Topper said without elaborating. But he said many House Republicans would like to see the school improvement program resume.

“This is not something that’s been out there for quite some time, so it’s going to take a little work, but I think I think we’re committed to doing that,” Topper said.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.