Pa. House OKs school construction payment process

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By PETER JACKSON
— The state House of Representatives on June 10 approved a bill to modernize the handling of state reimbursements for school construction projects amid Democrats' criticism that it won't help cash-strapped districts.

The 109-86 vote will send the measure to the Senate.

The bill would create an electronic database of construction projects and streamline what is now a largely paper-driven system administered by the Department of Education, said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Seth Grove.

A moratorium on new reimbursement applications, proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett and approved by the Legislature, was imposed in Oct. 2012. The state has limited reimbursements to $296 million a year since then.

Grove, R-York, said he hopes an additional $105 million will be appropriated in the state budget that starts July 1 so that about 200 projects that are awaiting reimbursements can begin receiving payments.

“It's a solid bill" that will help school districts, Grove said, noting that supporters of the measure include groups that represent school boards, school administrators and school business officials.

But competition for state funding is expected to be fierce in the face of a potential $1 billion-plus state budget shortfall. Members of the Democratic minority noted that the additional funding is not contained in Grove's bill.

“This bill will do nothing to help them get reimbursed," said Rep. Steven Santarsiero, D-Bucks.

“What we have is one more broken promise" from the Republicans, said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, R-Allegheny.

A Democratic motion to recommit the bill to the Education Committee was defeated 110-85.

Grove said the bill could produce millions in additional savings, including a provision that would require school districts to wait 30 years for reimbursement, instead of the 20 years currently required, with exceptions allowed for natural disasters and other emergencies.

Another provision targets at least $70 million in reimbursements to school districts that haven't completed the paperwork necessary to collect the money. It would give them three months to do so or the funds could be reallocated to other districts, Grove said.

The State Public School Building Authority also is working with school districts to refinance their debt to save an estimated $39 million, he said.

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