The House Tries Again to Appropriate Funds for School Construction

Have you noticed that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), aka the Stimulus Bill, contains no direct grant funding for school construction? While there is substantial construction funding in the form of bond and other programs in the Stimulus Bill, two pending bills, one from House of Representatives and the other from the Senate, aim to remedy the lack of direct Stimulus Bill funding for school construction.

The House bill would provide $6.5 billion for K-12 public school and community–college construction. The K-12 share, $4.02 billion, would fund school modernization, renovation and repair over a two-year period from fiscal year 2010 to 2011.

The measure came out of the House Committee on Education and Labor as an amendment to HR3221, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act. In mid-September, the legislation passed the full house.

In the Senate, Iowa Senator Thomas Harkin (D) has introduced another measure to fund school construction. Called the School Buildings Fairness Act of 2009 and designated S1121, it includes $700 million for school construction and renovation.

Early versions of ARRA contained billions for school construction. “The House version of the Stimulus Bill included $14 billion in school construction money,” says John McKeon, a spokesperson for the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA), a McLean, Va.-based association that tracks government-allocated construction dollars. “But the Senate deleted that money from the bill at the last minute. The only explanation was that the administration wanted a final Stimulus number that wouldn’t shock people.”

In fact, Senate Republicans clobbered overall education spending in the Stimulus Plan, removing $24 billion, including the $14 billion allocated by the House for school construction, from the final legislation. Observers point out that Republicans want local communities, counties and states to deal with school construction.

What are the prospects for the two new bills? “Both are pending and will probably pass both bodies (of Congress) and then go to conference,” Fritz Edelstein says in a pre-recorded interview posted at the Construction Management Association of America website. Edelstein is a principal with Public Private Action, an educational public policy consultancy that works with public and private organizations.

“The question about all this is: is it enough money,” continues Edelstein in the pre-recorded interview. “My guess is that if we can show demand and need, then the Build America Bonds will continue beyond the length of the Stimulus package.”

Build America Bonds are one of three bond programs in the Stimulus Bill that provide funds for school construction. Another construction funding program in the Stimulus Bill goes through the Department of Education. It’s called the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF). Check out the December issue of School Planning and Management magazine for details of these bond programs and other school Stimulus Bill financing programs that focus on school construction.

The Pending House Bill
The House bill, HR3221, emphasizes sustainable construction and renovation techniques. The bill specifies that 50 percent of the school construction funds received by a school district during the first year of the legislation must be spent on green, sustainable building systems. In the second year, the percentage rises to 75 percent.

Qualified sustainable building systems comply with applicable provisions of four nationally recognized programs including: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), ENERGY STAR , Collaboration for High Performance Schools (CHPS) and Green Globes.

The House Bill will not add to the federal deficit because the funds came from previously budgeted higher education allocations under a budget procedure called reconciliation, in which Congressional Budget committees direct certain committees to create savings from proposed legislation. This year, the education committees found reconciliation savings in funding originally earmarked for higher education. Each year, a reconciliation bill reallocates the savings. This year, the House Reconciliation Bill aims to reallocate $4 billion from higher education to K-12 school modernization, renovation and repair.
The Pending Senate Bill
According to the Congressional Research Service, the Senate Bill, the School Building Fairness Act of 2009, would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) and would allocate funds to states, which in turn would disperse competitive matching grants to local educational agencies (LEAs) for school repair, renovation and construction. In awarding grants, the states would consider the percentage of poor children served by the LEA; the condition of their public schools and need for new schools; the extent of green building standards in their plans; fiscal capacity to cover repairs renovation and construction without the grant; and the likelihood that the LEA will be able to adequately maintain the renovations or new construction.

For cash-starved school districts, both the House and Senate Bill, should they become law, will likely seem like a welcome continuation of stimulus spending, which fell short when it came to direct grants for K-12 school construction and renovation.