Lawmakers hear local thoughts on PlanCon

Alyssa Pressler
  • Red Lion hosted a PlanCon Advisory Committee Meeting with state Rep. Stan Saylor on Monday.
  • Three panels spoke to the commission about issues they see with the system.
  • PlanCon is a state system used for keeping track of school construction projects.

A committee to review PlanCon visited Red Lion Area School District on Monday to hear testimony about issues with the state program.

PlanCon, or the Planning and Construction Workbook, is a program that documents a school district's planning process for construction, provides justification to the public, ensures districts are in compliance with state laws and establishes a level of reimbursement to the school for the construction, according to its website.

Red Lion Area School District Superintendent Scott Deisley addresses a committee of lawmakers about PlanCon on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017.

PlanCon has been an issue since 2016, when PlanCon reimbursements were not included in the state budget, so the state owed school districts back payments for reimbursements.

Local school districts started to see these reimbursements in November 2016 after Act 25 was passed, approving the Commonwealth Financing Authority to issue bonds to pay school districts what they were owed. Act 25 also established the PlanCon Advisory Committee to explore the PlanCon process and make recommendations to improve it in May 2017.

York schools receive PlanCon reimbursements

Since Act 25 was established, a group of lawmakers, school officials and community members have traveled around the state to hear feedback on PlanCon. Each meeting is chaired by a local lawmaker.

The meeting at Red Lion was co-chaired by state Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, and Sen. Pat Browne, R-Leigh County. The two were accompanied by state education Secretary Pedro Rivera and a number of other lawmakers.

Charters and PlanCon: The first panel to speak to the committee was composed of experts in charter schools, particularly from the Philadelphia area. They spoke to the lawmakers about facilities funding for charter schools across the state, using several Philadelphia charters to illustrate points.

Charter schools cannot go through the PlanCon process because it is reserved for public schools. Charter schools also cannot raise taxes to subsidize facility projects or construction. Their funding comes from federal funding and money that school districts pay in tuition for students who attend that charter.

According to the panel, charter schools receive a fraction of the funding public schools do and have very few reimbursement opportunities or loan opportunities for construction or renovation.

Sen. Pat Browne, R-Leigh County, center,  responds to a panel of charter school experts at a PlanCon Committee meeting at Red Lion Area School District on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017. Browne is flanked by education Secretary Pedro Rivera, left, and Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township.

"Brick-and-mortar charter schools have the same issues as public schools and should be funded as much," said Naomi Johnson Booker, CEO of Global Leadership Academy Charter School in Philadelphia.

Mike Wang, the executive director for Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners, said a lack of options for reimbursement for construction projects forces charter schools to think outside the box. Often, this results in less money being spent directly on education so more money can be spent on improvements around the charter school buildings.

"Traditional schools spend over $1,500 per student on facilities," Wang said. "Charter schools get about one tenth of that."

Browne and Saylor said the panel gave them a lot to think about going forward with PlanCon and charter schools.

Construction: The second panel was made up of two engineering representatives: Dave Steele, vice president of Urban Engineers Inc., and John Luciani, president of First Capital Engineering.

The two engineers have worked in the business for decades, often with school districts. They argued that PlanCon itself wasn't broken but the funding method for it was. Steele said  school districts should be able to opt out of PlanCon reimbursement if they don't absolutely need it, allowing poorer districts to receive more in reimbursements.

Luciani argued that LEED certification should play a huge role in how much schools are reimbursed. Buildings become LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certified by following a set of guidelines and criteria that make buildings run more efficiently and become environmentally friendly.

John Luciani, president of First Capital Engineering, left, and Dave Steele, vice president of Urban Engineers Inc., address the PlanCon Advisory Committee on issues they have with the PlanCon program at Red Lion Area School District on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017.

School buildings that are LEED certified are eligible for more reimbursement, but Luciani argued the LEED-certification process is expensive and typically a waste. Most contractors are going to be doing the most economical and energy-efficient work if it makes sense for that school building anyway, he said.

Finally, Red Lion Superintendent Scott Deisley addressed the committee, arguing that construction projects at Red Lion Area School District could be made cheaper by allowing his maintenance crew to do a majority of the work. He mentioned recent projects Red Lion completed, which involved new roofing and installing more secure doors, as an example.

Through PlanCon, districts are required to specify a prevailing wage rate for projects where the total estimated cost is greater than $25,000, with the prevailing wage determined by the state's Department of Labor and Industry. The law is supposed to ensure high-quality work, but Deisley argued it just encourages bidders for school projects to lower costs by using cheaper materials.

Saylor said at the end of Deisley's address that Red Lion hasn't raised property taxes in five years and cut property taxes last year, something he said he was proud of the district for.

Rivera said at the end of the panels he felt the meeting went well and had a diversity of opinions. The committee will hear from more communities before determining what recommendations they'll make to the governor in May.

"There are some trends we've heard and some differences in different locations we'll need to think about," Rivera said.