Lack of funds hurting schools

LOYSBURG – With Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget delaying school construction funds for another year, Northern Bedford County School District is left $500,000 in the hole without a brick laid on a project that’s occupied the board’s attention for years.

Meanwhile, another year without compensation has left the neighboring Everett Area School District without hoped-for reimbursement on a project that’s already finished.

The two districts are hardly alone.

State budget season is well underway as lawmakers work toward a June 30 deadline. Much has been written of Corbett’s proposal, which would restore some of the money school districts have lost in recent years.

While the basic subsidy issued to schools could increase, the state’s PlanCon system – a bureaucratic process that reviews and compensates construction work so local taxpayers aren’t solely responsible – appears set to go another year without money.

At Northern Bedford, administrators and board members worked for years to develop multimillion-dollar upgrades to district buildings. Working with two architecture firms at different times, they developed a plan to modernize science classrooms, ramp up building security, replace gym bleachers and floors and upgrade a library, among other changes, Superintendent Scott King said Friday.

The work would cost more than $6 million, King said. Through the PlanCon system, short for Planning and Construction Workbook, the state could pay back more than $4 million – sparing property owners in the rural district the shock of a hefty tax hike.

The district moved toward the last of PlanCon’s 11 steps before the board halted the work.

“When we started the project, the reimbursement was good,” Board President Larry Garlock said Friday. “All of the sudden, none of the districts are getting any reimbursements.”

With the last two state budgets leaving out PlanCon, districts already set for compensation have received none, while schools like Northern Bedford are left without the means to move forward.

“Obviously the state is wrestling with some financial issues,” King said.

Between architectural firms Stantec and Crabtree, and Rohrbaugh & Associates, Northern Bedford has likely spent $500,000 in the planning phase, he said. But with word that money for the work is suspended beyond the horizon, the board voted May 13 to table the plan indefinitely.

The board had already taken out a $9 million bond to pay for the work; much of the money has since been diverted to expand tangentially related energy upgrades, which could save the school hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

Administrators are proud of the energy work, which has reduced the district’s carbon footprint and placed it among a handful of schools that use cleaner, more efficient systems. But without PlanCon, the rest of the district’s upgrades appear unattainable, at least for the moment.

“We can’t take money from the kids to do a [construction] project,” Garlock said.

Just south of Northern Bedford, Everett area schools face the same problem but at a later stage: The state owes them several hundred thousand dollars for past work, and repayment appears to be nowhere in sight. Across the state, schools must contend with uncertain or long-delayed compensation, even as multimillion-dollar bonds come in for repayment.

If construction-payment delays are here to stay, administrators said this week, parents and taxpayers could see more districts following the State College Area School District’s lead. In a May 20 referendum, the district asked voters whether they’d agree to borrow $85 million for a new high school building.

The result was an overwhelming “yes,” a rare result for the usually doomed vote attempts.

A referendum in State College is one thing, King of Northern Bedford said, but a rural district like his might not possess the built-up tax base to fund a new building, even if the voters were on board. Administrators there can be thankful that their buildings were only in need of some updates, not total replacement, he said.

But with some 70 districts already in search of PlanCon money, as Garlock estimated, some might not be so lucky.

“It looks like the money isn’t going to be there,” he said. “I don’t have much hope for it.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.