By Todd Engdahl, EDUCATION NEWS COLORADO
An otherwise-routine State Board of Education teleconference this week was highlighted by a brief partisan gripe session about the strings attached to one federal stimulus program.
“Just another example of extortion by our Congress,” complained board Chair Bob Schaffer, R-4th District.
Board members got on the phone for half an hour Tuesday afternoon to approve a funding recommendation by the Capital Construction Assistance Board and do a little other routine business.
The assistance board had recommended changes in the financing of $62.6 million in construction projects for three San Luis Valley school districts to take advantage of the federal Quality Zone Construction Bonds program, which eliminates interest costs for the state. The state treasurer’s office estimates the interest savings on the three projects at $45 million. Instead of interest payments, investors in such bonds receive federal tax credits.
But, the federal program requires that prevailing union wages be paid on the projects and also may require use of American-made materials.
So, the state board had to approve additional funding authority of up to $5.4 million on the three projects – up to $3.6 million for prevailing wages required by the federal Davis-Bacon law and up to $1.8 million for American-made materials. (Hughes said federal stimulus law is unclear whether the buy-American provision applies to the Quality Zone bonds, and his office is seeking legal clarification. The $1.8 million won’t be spent if it isn’t required, he added.)
The whole business didn’t sit well with Schaffer, a conservative Republican and former U.S. House member.
Readily agreeing that “0 interest is a remarkable savings,” Schaffer said he still felt that the $5.4 million could be better spent on additional construction projects or other education uses.
Schaffer’s comments, in turn, didn’t sit will with Elaine Gantz Berman, a liberal Democrat who represents the 1st District on the board.
“Let’s try to focus our energies on what we have control over,” she said, adding, “You (Schaffer) had your chance in Congress.”
Schaffer responded, “I think clearly that the board ought to state a preference … for children in Colorado. We have no choice, [but] I think we do have a duty to try to fight back.”
Berman said, “Mr. Schaffer, that is not a fair representation” of the board’s thinking.
A few minutes later, Marcia Neal, R-3rd District, said, “Mr. Schaffer, I appreciate your comments,” adding that she has “great objections” to such federal restrictions. Thank you for bringing that up.”
The board unanimously approved the extra funding.
The three construction projects, approved in their original form by the state board on March 19, include two new elementary schools in Alamosa, a new P-12 school in the Sangre de Cristo district and a new junior-senior high plus an elementary school renovation in Sargent.
Those projects are part of the new Build Excellent Schools Today program, under which state funds and, in some cases, local matching money are used to pay off lease-purchase agreements that are used to school renovation and construction. The program, created last year, is designed particularly to help smaller districts that lack sufficient tax bases to fund their own construction programs.
The construction board meets next on July 22-23, when it will consider 91 applications requesting $231.3 million. Some of the applications contain matching funds adding up to an additional $163.8 million. About 20 of the applications are for lease-purchase arrangements. The remained seek direct cash grants.
A statewide assessment of all schools – about 1,850 schools and 4,900 buildings – is being done by a contractor, Parson Technology. The assessment will be used to create a priority list that will help guide future funding decisions. The fieldwork is supposed to be done by November, with a report ready by Jan. 16, 2010.
Distributed by Colorado Capitol Reporters