Pennsylvania’s budget gridlock is over, but school districts are focusing on another piece of unwelcome news: After years of delayed reimbursements for state-approved construction and building maintenance, they’ll go without any state funding for such projects.
About $306 million in construction reimbursements was nixed when Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a budget-related piece of legislation known as the fiscal code last week.
Schools desperate for their state aid were the single largest source of pressure on lawmakers and Wolf to end the nearly nine-month budget impasse. Will the holdup of state money for construction costs prompt a similar outcry?
Time will tell.
“I don’t think it’s as serious,” said Jim Buckheit, director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. “Districts almost have now an expectation that whatever the state owes them for school construction reimbursements will be delayed. So this isn’t anything unusual. What is unusual this year is that districts aren’t getting any money because of the lack of an appropriation.”
Jay Himes, head of the Pennsylvania Association of Business Officials, said he expects districts with construction funding at stake to “be very active in advocating and work very hard for a fix to this problem.”
Under the Republican-crafted fiscal code vetoed by Wolf last week, reimbursements for school construction projects would have been secured through borrowing. The governor said that would have been too costly. It was one of many problems Wolf had with the legislation.
Last week, as school district leaders urged an end to budget gridlock during a press conference at the Capitol, they made occasional mention of construction reimbursements. Many districts have emerged from the impasse with interest payments and legal costs as a result of the loans they’ve taken out to stay open without state aid.
Thomas Cipriano, business administrator for the Hanover Area School District in Luzerne County, said the absence of construction reimbursements would make “a difficult situation even worse.”
Buckheit said some school districts, such as Cipriano’s, may have to raise local property taxes to help pay for construction costs.
“This is an obligation the state has,” said Buckheit. “They promised to pay school districts these funds.”