Pennsylvania looks elsewhere for PlanCon reform
PlanCon Advisory Commission Chairman Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, summed up the state’s struggles with education funding quite simply.
“We are never the example,” he said in between testimony during the commission’s first hearing, which featured panelists from Colorado and Ohio. “We are never the model of where to go and I think that’s been our experience with special education, basic education and now school construction. What we are is people who are very interested in hearing the facts from those who know what they are talking about and being willing to take constructive criticism about our current approach and what is wrong with it.”
Pennsylvania provides partial reimbursement to school districts for new construction and renovation projects. Districts that undertake school construction projects and seek reimbursement must receive approval from the PA Department of Education through a process referred to as PlanCon (an acronym for Planning and Construction Workbook).
Pennsylvania is one of 23 states offering capital funding to school districts through a grant program, but Michael Griffith, school finance strategist for the Education Commission of the States, says this model relies on unpredictable economic forces and imperfect measures of relative wealth.
“The funding is never sufficient to meet everyone’s needs,” he said. “Which means you as a state will have to pick winners and losers.”
Pennsylvania lawmakers and the state’s 500 school districts know this all too well. During the 2015-16 budget impasse, the state’s annual $300 million school construction program payout was moved offline to balance the budget while the state secured a multi-billion loan to clear the backlog of project reimbursements.
Protracted negotiations, however, stalled the bond process, leaving districts holding the bill for debt service payments they never agreed to pay. In a year where school funding, too, had been withheld, the costs piled up for hundreds of districts.
Pennsylvania’s “first-come, first-serve” style of reimbursing money has its shortfalls, too, Griffith said.
“If you want to have a high quality school funding system, you need a way to assess what your current structures are,” he said. “What are building conditions around the state? What needs the highest priority? Most states do it through a survey system. Most don’t do it at all, but if they do, they do it through a survey.
“The idea is if you don’t know the current status of your school buildings, you’re not going to be able to come with up with a system to adequately fund that.”
Take Ohio, for example, said Dr. Howard Fleeter, a consultant for the Ohio Education Policy Institute.
“Ohio is very similar, in terms of size, in terms of demographics, in terms of geography … I think the challenges we face are similar to the ones Pennsylvania faces,” he said.
In 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court mandated the state appropriate capital funding, of some kind, to its 610 school districts.
The Ohio School Facilities Commission, formed that same year, set out to rank every district based on need, creating a master list the state has spent the last two decades working its way through.
“We’ve spent $11 billion since 1998 and we are about two-thirds the way down our list of school districts,” he said. “The magnitude of the problem Ohio was dealing with was very, very large.”
Fleeter said the state didn’t rely on property taxes alone, either, to determine a school district’s relative wealth and its ability to raise taxes to help fund construction and renovation projects.
“The power plant doesn’t vote, the people in the district vote, so their income level is very important,” he said. “So we have a wealth measurement that takes this into account.”
The poorest districts, ranked in the lower positions on the list, are eligible to receive state funding for construction projects first. He clarified, however, districts will not receive state money if voters do not approve a millage increase to cover their share of the project — which in poorer districts, may be 10 percent or less of the total cost.
Between 1994 and 2013, Ohio spent 12.5 billion on school construction and renovation projects, compared to Pennsylvania’s $7.3 billion. On a per-student level, Ohio spent $5,854 versus Pennsylvania’s $3,912 — a figure that lags behind Delaware, New York, New Jersey and Maryland, too.
“In fact, you tend to be one of the lower contributing states, one of the lowest five,” Griffith said. “But there is no magic number out there.”
Fleeter added that part of Ohio’s success in building a program was due to the realization that funding should be targeted specifically.
He said states that try to spread money out evenly across its districts often fail to address crumbling school infrastructure adequately.