Thomas Hylton: Pa. can save on schools

Gov. Corbett was swept into office with a pledge of fiscal discipline, limited government, and no tax increases. He faces billions of dollars in deficits, pension liabilities, and loan repayments.

Corbett is clearly looking for savings in public education, which is the largest expense at both the state and local levels, and which reaped substantially increased state subsidies under the Rendell administration. The new governor believes competition and choice will improve the quality and efficiency of education, and the state Senate has already scheduled hearings on a bill to provide state vouchers for students in failing public schools.

But those are long-term endeavors, and the governor needs to cut costs now. A great place to start is eliminating the wasteful state school-construction program called PlanCon. Each year, Pennsylvania school districts spend more than a billion dollars on school construction, with hundreds of millions reimbursed by the state. The subsidy depends on the wealth of the district, but some districts receive 25 percent or more of construction costs.

In theory, PlanCon encourages school districts to build and maintain top-quality facilities. In practice, PlanCon rewards districts for abandoning or demolishing perfectly good buildings and replacing them with lavish facilities that do little to improve learning but take decades to pay off.

Moreover, many of these projects exacerbate a decades-long trend of closing neighborhood schools and replacing them with large consolidated schools to which all students must be bused. Statewide, school busing now costs $1.2 billion annually — half of it subsidized by the state — and riding rather than walking contributes to childhood obesity. Meanwhile, the loss of nearby schools accelerates the decline of older neighborhoods.

Even when existing schools are retained, PlanCon adds unnecessary millions to construction costs by requiring that schools be completely renovated — a process known as “shut it and gut it.” The state provides no subsidies for ongoing maintenance such as replacing a roof, installing new wiring, or replacing plumbing and heating systems. Instead, PlanCon provides an incentive for school districts to let buildings deteriorate so badly that reconstruction or replacement — subsidized by the state — seems necessary.

Consider the 850-student Morrisville School District in Bucks County, which until recently had two elementary schools and an intermediate-high school. The buildings had all been terribly neglected, and the district’s architect recommended replacing all three with a new K-12 building costing $35 million.

The proposed building became a political issue, and incumbents favoring the new school were voted out of office. By making better use of existing space, the newly elected board was able to close one elementary school by enlarging the other school with eight modulars, which it hopes to gradually eliminate. Rather than gutting either of its two remaining schools, Morrisville simply replaced the heating systems, windows, much of the wiring and plumbing, and some ceiling and floor tiles. The elementary school was air-conditioned, as were selected areas of the intermediate-senior high school.

Morrisville has now extended the life of two schools for at least 20 years, and greatly increased their energy efficiency, at a cost of $8 million — a quarter of the price of the proposed new school. Both schools are within walking distance of their students.

The state provided no subsidy toward Morrisville’s thrifty solution. Had Morrisville opted to build the $35 million school, however, the state would have provided $5 million toward the project.

Schools are typically among the most solidly constructed buildings in any community. Despite evolving technologies, the way we arrange our classrooms, hallways, gymnasiums, and auditoriums hasn’t fundamentally changed. In fact, architectural fads like the “open plan” schools of the 1970s are the most likely to become obsolete. Building green? The “greenest” school is the one that’s already been built.

Yet many school administrators contend that new construction is necessary to provide a 21st-century education. Unfortunately, school boards rarely have the knowledge or confidence to challenge architects and administrators who push for elaborate projects, and big-spending districts continually raise the bar for everyone else. Ironically, many older buildings that are closed as inadequate are then sold and converted into private or charter schools.

PlanCon reinforces the conventional wisdom that newer and bigger facilities are essential to a quality education. They aren’t. By abolishing PlanCon, Corbett can send a powerful message that we have entered an era of limited resources. We must make better use of what we have.

Thomas Hylton is author of Save Our Land, Save Our Towns; host of the public television documentary, Saving Pennsylvania; and a member of the Pottstown school board. E-mail him at