Lamont urged to fund air quality improvements in local schools


West Hartford Public Schools

A preschool class at Whiting Lane Primary School in West Hartford. West Hartford was included in a list of school districts facing high costs to improve their air quality systems.

A growing coalition of municipalities, teachers, school administrators and others challenged Governor Ned Lamont on Thursday to increase state funding to improve school air management systems as Connecticut is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the state’s Small Towns Council both clashed this summer when they learned that the existing school building policy restricts the use of state funds to help cities pay. for new ventilation, air conditioning and air quality control systems.

On Thursday, they were joined by the state’s two largest teacher unions – the Connecticut Education Association and AFT CT – the national associations of municipal school boards and school principals, and CSEA-SEIU Local 2001 , which represents teaching assistants in public schools.

“There is an urgent need for state funding for municipalities and their education councils to upgrade HVAC systems to ensure adequate air quality in public schools as Connecticut continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, ”said Joe DeLong, CCM executive director. “This dire situation cannot be left to property taxpayers to shoulder the tax burden. … It’s frankly weird that the state recognizes the end of life of a roof or window, but thinks that an air quality system never needs updating or replacement, ”said Long.

The pandemic has exposed air quality issues that urgently need to be addressed, coalition members said, noting that the problem also goes beyond simply tackling the coronavirus. Federal environmental officials have recognized that poor air quality is a contributing factor to chronic absenteeism and long-term health problems for both students and school staff.

But the Lamont administration warned last summer that the alternative is a major new expense that Connecticut has not prepared for.

Connecticut currently reimburses communities between 10% and 71% of new construction and large-scale renovation projects designed to last 20 years or more, depending in large part on the wealth of the community.

If a district wishes to carry out a smaller project, such as replacing or upgrading a heating / ventilation system, the full cost is borne locally.

Coventry city and school officials learned about it earlier this summer when the state balked at funding part of the college and high school ventilation system upgrade. The city, which has already started roof replacement work on these units, was also keen to tackle the air management issue, but learned that the Global Scope was not seen as a retrofit project to large scale – and that ventilation upgrade costs were a local responsibility.

The JCC and the rest of the coalition on Thursday released a list of Coventry and 10 other communities facing high costs as they attempt to improve the air quality in their local schools amid the pandemic.

Most of the expenses incurred or planned were in the millions, with some in the tens of millions, largely based on the number of buildings in need of an air system upgrade.

Besides Coventry, the communities cited were Clinton, Guilford, Madison, Milford, New Britain, New Haven, Newtown, Norwich, Stonington and West Hartford.

But Kostantinos Diamantis, who is Lamont’s deputy budget director and who has also overseen the state’s school building program for the past six years, said much of the problem is that many communities have postponed the maintenance of their schools for too long, and that includes the air management systems.

“There are districts that haven’t touched their schools for 40 years,” Diamantis told the CT Mirror in late August. “The local level needs to get down to the bar. … Cities have an obligation to maintain these buildings.

The CCM and the Small Town Council appealed to the Lamont administration at the end of the summer to see if more flexibility could be built into the state’s school construction cost-sharing policies.

“Our outreach met with resistance and frank comments that were at once unproductive, spurious and sarcastic,” DeLong said, adding that it was time for the legislature to get involved. Officials from the Lamont administration “have made it clear that when it comes to air quality for our children and our educators, they are more interested in pointing fingers than in teaming up to solve the problem. “, added DeLong.

Representative Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, who co-chairs the public health committee, said funding all air system costs for schools and other facilities statewide would add hundreds of millions annual cost dollars.

And given that Connecticut funds these projects over years or decades by issuing bonds on Wall Street, the interest component would further compound the impact.

But Steinberg said lawmakers should try to find common ground in the next session, perhaps a program offering even modest incentives to help communities upgrade or modernize the quality systems of the city. existing air.

For more than a decade, Connecticut governors have been pressured by the legislature to cut rising costs in one of the nation’s most generous school building cost-sharing programs.

With roughly $ 27 billion in bond debt involving all types of investment projects – and over $ 90 billion in unfunded bonds after accounting for retirement and health care programs – Connecticut owes more by inhabitant than most other states in the country.

And Connecticut’s population has grown by a measly 0.09% over the past decade, the fourth slowest of any state, according to an analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts. This means that school buildings in many parts of Connecticut are underutilized.

Connecticut spent about $ 450 million last year to support projects in local and regional districts and technical high schools across the state. That’s about $ 800 million less than before he started overseeing the program six years ago.

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