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May 19, 2014

Two Cambria schools recognized

— Two Cambria County schools were honored Monday by Carolyn Dumaresq, acting state education secretary. Penn Cambria Primary School and Richland Elementary led the county in the first round of the Pennsylvania School Performance Profiles, scoring a respective 91.7 and 92 points overall for the 2012-13 school year.

Statewide, only 428 school buildings within the roughly 500 Pennsylvania districts scored 90 points or higher, according to a department press release. Each received or will receive the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Academics, presented by Dumaresq.

After her public appearances, Dumaresq met with The Tribune-Democrat to discuss the state of Pennsylvania education. Among the issues discussed were shortcomings in the state’s nearly $300 million Planning and Construction Workbook school construction reimbursement system, or PlanCon, which was overcommitted by about $30 million by the former department administration, Dumaresq said.

She said the problem occurred when administrators banked on fewer districts taking advantage of PlanCon – and having reached the project stage “D” required for approval. Many schools saw it as an opportunity to get a leg up on future projects that would require bond assistance from the state.

Since the state, which was unable to pay all the bond commitments, placed a moratorium on PlanCon reimbursements in 2012, many districts have been waiting patiently for their funds. The clogged coffers, however, are forcing schools to cut budgets to the bone and consider culling programs they’d prefer to keep.

“I’ve got a fix in that I’m hoping that the legislators are picking up on,” Dumaresq told The Tribune-Democrat on Monday.

She said one of the many obstacles to getting the state paybacks out to the districts that desperately need them is districts that sit on their reimbursement paperwork. She proposes a slight modification to the existing legislation, allowing delinquent schools to be “skipped” in favor of paying the schools that are prepared to submit their PlanCon forms.

“The money will still be there, but they’ll have to wait,” she said.

As it stands, Dumaresq said the department is beginning to catch up with the state’s debts – $75 million worth of backlogged payments. Once the department comes around to settle up, the districts are repaid in full. Future payments for subsequent years are scheduled as they would be normally.

She said six schools in the state were approved to get their money last month, with 20 more districts to come.

Portage Area School District is one of the first six approved districts. Portage Area’s 35-year-old elementary school underwent a complete renovation for roughly $9.2 million. The district began making bond payments in 2010, two years after beginning the PlanCon process. As of March, Superintendent Rich Bernazzoli said the district was down $1.2 million due to the absent PlanCon refunds.

Dumaresq’s legislative proposal would also allow the department to settle out with one-time rated payments, allowing the department to cut a 15- or 20-year bond issue commitment to the district down to one year. That would break up the “line” for state reimbursements while allowing districts more leeway with their budget plans - many districts stopped budgeting PlanCon payouts a long time ago.

Although Dumaresq said she feels the state needs an exit strategy from the PlanCon program as a whole, she also said education pension reform – the Pennsylvania Public School Employees’ Retirement System, or PSERS – could use a good look. The state could support a guaranteed benefit package up to a certain pay grade, which will have a 2.5 percent increase and act as a “safety net," she said.

“Whatever is above that – that shouldn’t be the taxpayers’ responsibility. That’s a defined contribution, like the rest of the world,” she said. “It also gives you the ability to manage your own retirement, if people do that wisely. The numbers that I’ve seen will dramatically decrease the state’s (pension) contribution.”

She said the department will need to find $2 billion within the next three years to fund the state’s next PSERS contribution, a figure that astounds her.

“We can’t sustain this,” she said.

This story is part of a series delving into The Tribune-Democrat’s Monday interview with Acting State Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq. Look for more stories throughout the week.

Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinDennis.

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