The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

September 16, 2012

Unintended rush to spend

Daily Item

---- — Talk about the law of unintended consequences.

School board members from both Mifflinburg and Lewisburg announced this week that they will apply for a state program that provides reimbursement for school construction even though they are not certain they want to do the work.

Critics have long argued that the state's manner of funding school construction rewards schools for overbuilding. The state spends about $300 million a year through the PlanCon program to help local schools pay for new buildings.

However, the funding formula rewards school districts for embarking on costly construction projects rather than pursuing more affordable renovation alternatives.

Thomas Hylton, a Pultizer Prize-winning writer who has explored issues related to smart growth, notes that even when school districts do renovation work, PlanCon funding formulas encourage extensive repairs rather than work that might help a district maintain an older, but perfectly acceptable building.

The state provides no subsidy for on-going maintenance, such as roof replacement, installing wiring, updating plumbing or replacing heating systems.

The poster building for this phenomenon might very well be the $33.4 million Midd-West High School in Middleburg.

Gov. Tom Corbett, who has been nothing if not consistent in forcing public schools to adapt to times of austerity has announced a moratorium on PlanCon funding.

Unfortunately, the governor's move did not immediately slam the door on PlanCon funding.

School districts have until the end of this month to notify the state whether they want to apply for reimbursements while they are still available under the program.

The Lewisburg school board voted Thursday to pay an architect $7,500 to expeditiously update their facilities plan to include up-to-the-minute enrollment numbers and an energy analysis. It also must redraw the basic schematic and design for the project as well as the budget, which at last estimate was about $30 million. Tuesday, the Mifflinburg school board authorized an architect to apply to get a middle school project included in the same program even though school officials are not certain they even want to do the work.

In one sense, school officials are just doing their best to make sure they are in a position to take advantage of every available funding source. The rush to capture PlanCon funding after state officials have identified the program as an inefficient way of managing public investment only reinforces skepticism about the decision-making of those guiding our public schools.