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NH's school districts can tap fund for safety, internet projects

State House Bureau

October 05. 2017 11:52PM

CONCORD — School districts throughout the state will soon have a chance to apply for part of a fund estimated at $19 million for school construction projects, with an emphasis on safety, security and internet connectivity.

Thanks to a robust budget surplus for the 2017 fiscal year that ended on June 30, the state will be offering a form of building aid to local school districts for the first time in nearly a decade.

In 2009, in the depths of the Great Recession, the Legislature approved a moratorium on state funding for new school projects, leaving local districts to their own devices.

While the moratorium remains in place, Gov. Chris Sununu in his first budget address proposed directing some of the anticipated state surplus to certain school improvement efforts.

His budget initially estimated the amount for the Public School Infrastructure Revitalization Trust Fund at $8.5 million. The Legislature then passed the budget trailer bill, HB 517, with a provision that any budget surplus at the end of the fiscal year go into the school infrastructure fund, once the Rainy Day Fund reaches $100 million.

The preliminary numbers are in for FY 2017, and according to the Department of Administrative Services, the state ended the fiscal year with a $25 million surplus, of which $6 million was needed to bring the Rainy Day Fund up to the required $100 million.

That leaves an estimated $19 million for the schools, more than twice as much as Sununu anticipated. The formal audit, which won’t be completed until December, could cause that number to move by a few million in either direction, but planning is underway based on $19 million.

Critical building needs

That’s a far cry from what the state once made available, but it will be welcomed in many school districts, where critical building needs have gone unfunded for years.

An eight-member Public School Infrastructure Commission has been created to recommend how the money should be distributed.

The law establishing the fund restricts grants to projects that address life or safety issues; establish fiber optic connections for high-speed internet service; or improve security.

“Schools have been shouting for the past eight years, ‘We need some help correcting these things,’” said state Rep. Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, chairman of the infrastructure commission and the House Education Committee. “There are places where classes don’t have proper egress; there are situations where there are fire-safety issues. We need to get a handle on this.”

The commission met on Wednesday to draft the application forms that will be used by school districts, which should be available by the end of the month.

Applications will go to the Department of Education, which will then submit them to the commission. The commission will rank the applications and send them to the governor, who will make his decisions before seeking final approval from the Joint Fiscal Committee and the Executive Council.

“We’re looking at issues and needs that are immediate in nature,” said Ladd. “This is an expedited process to try to get the money to the schools where it is needed as quickly as we can do it.”

The governor is not bound by the vote of the commission, and could come up with proposals of his own. “We envision this will be a collaborative process with the Legislature,” said Sununu’s spokesman, Ben Vihstadt.

“The governor looks forward to working with the Legislature and the Department of Education to identify school building projects that require the greatest need. He is committed to ensuring that Granite State children learn in the safest and most productive environments possible.”

Immediate hazards

Ladd predicted that $3.5 million will be spent on improved security measures, and $4 million for fiber optic connections, leaving the remainder health and safety issues.

“We’ll be looking for immediate hazards to students, staff and parents in these buildings,” he said.

Funding for fiber optic service is designed to equalize the quality of internet access in schools statewide, according to Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut, who pointed out that 76 percent of the schools already have fiber optic connections.

“There are a lot of gaps in the North Country and southwest part of the state,” he said. “Those are the schools that struggle to get qualified teachers for certain programs, particularly in math and science. So the fiber optic connections will create more education options for those schools and programs for their students.”

Everyone involved is quick to point out, this is not the restoration of the school building program. “These are one-time funds that will be spent on one-time projects,” said Sununu in an emailed statement. “Once finalized, we will be able to deliver this additional support without increasing state liabilities.”

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