PlanCon backlog strains school budgets
Freeze on state construction payouts ends, but educators say the increase isn't enough.
It's been nearly two years since the new Phoenixville Area Middle School opened its doors with an oversize auditorium featuring state-of-the-art acoustics; high-tech "Smart Boards" in front of every classroom; a large courtyard; and an impressive library.
The $56 million Chester County public school is missing only one thing: money that Harrisburg promised to help defray the cost.
"We show it as a receivable in the belief that at some point we will get what we are owed by the state," said Stan Johnson, Phoenixville Area School District executive director of operations. He said the district is owed $1,145,358 in state funds for the middle school, which opened in 2012, and for architect's fees on another pending project.
Welcome to yet another headache for Pennsylvania school budget officers, already stressed to the max by soaring pension costs, teacher-contract stalemates, and taxpayer unrest: A state bureaucratic morass known as PlanCon - short for Planning and Construction Workbooks - which owes a total of $1.7 billion to school districts.
The 41-year-old state program, which aims to help local districts meet some of the costs of building new facilities or renovating older ones, remains seriously backlogged, with payments for 338 projects across Pennsylvania pending, and final approval for some running up to several years behind schedule.
The PlanCon bureaucratic logjam in Harrisburg, which has worsened in the last four years in tandem with the broader crisis in school funding, has forced already cash-strapped districts to tighten belts further, or juggle accounts to make up for millions of dollars in overdue checks from the state Department of Education.
Experts say a vote last month by lawmakers to end a two-year moratorium on payments with a small $10 million bump in annual funding - raising the overall 2014-15 budget for payouts to $306 million - will not do much to ease the backlog.
"What used to be months is now years," said Jeff Ammerman, director of technical assistance for the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials. He said that the backlog in getting capital spending approved on the state level has increased at the same time that record-low interest rates have triggered a boomlet in school construction projects.
Locally, dozens of PlanCon projects are in the pipeline but awaiting final approval in Philadelphia and about 30 suburban districts.
Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said that about 20 of the 338 projects now in bureaucratic limbo should start receiving their money this academic year because of the legislative action, as older projects finally are paid off and taken off the books.
The complicated, 11-step process for schools to actually acquire those dollars - paid out over multiple years, in tandem with construction loans - at times sounds like a lost chapter from Catch-22.
After going through the first seven phases of applying for the state construction aid - Steps A through G - the PlanCon cash starts flowing when the Education Department signs off on the eighth phase, Step H. It is Step H where a bureaucratic traffic jam of Schuylkill Expressway-size proportions has been taking place in recent years. About 200 projects are stuck in that spot.
"It really is a function of any number of things - how many projects are going to come off in a year and how many are ahead of you in the line," said Ammerman, with the school business officials' group. "Even though $10 million [in additional funding] was put in this year, the line item was cut a couple of years ago. That affected it."
In Phoenixville, Johnson said, officials have used the PlanCon process for three projects since the turn of the century, including Schuylkill Elementary School, which opened in 2006 and has received most of its expected state aid. He said the backlog used to be shorter, about a year to 18 months, and more informal - before the Corbett administration placed an official two-year moratorium on approvals.
"At least the current administration has the guts to say. we're going to freeze it," Johnson said. The application process for Phoenixville's new middle school, still awaiting its Step H sign-off, began in 2009.
The Education Department's Eller said that the bureaucratic hoops can compound the process and that the department has been sending out quarterly reminders to districts that may owe more paperwork. He said one unnamed project that is owed a relatively small amount of money from the early 1990s is still on the books because that district has not sent in the necessary forms.
But the tangle of red tape isn't the only thing that's drawn some grumbling from public school budget officers. They say there's no backlog in PlanCon funding that goes for lease reimbursements for charter schools - about $8.2 million in the 2012-13 school year.
BY THE NUMBERS
Amount owed to school districts across Pa.
Number of projects awaiting payments from Planning and Construction Workbooks.
Amount owed to the Phoenixville Area School District.EndText