Lamont urged funding for air quality improvements in local schools

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Public Schools in West Hartford

A preschool classroom at Whiting Lane Elementary School in West Hartford. West Hartford was placed on a list of school districts facing high costs to improve their air quality systems.

A growing coalition of communities, teachers, school administrators and others called on Governor Ned Lamont on Thursday to increase state funding to improve schools’ air management systems as Connecticut grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the state’s Council of Small Towns raised objections this summer when they learned that existing school building policies put limits on when government funds can be used to help cities fund new ventilation, air conditioning and air quality control systems to help.

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

“There is an overwhelming need for state funding for communities and their education agencies to modernize HVAC systems to maintain adequate air quality in public schools as Connecticut continues to fight the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Joe DeLong , Executive Director of CCM. “This dire situation cannot simply be left to property taxpayers to shoulder the tax burden. … It is frankly bizarre that the state should recognize the end of life for a roof or window, but believe that an air quality system never needs to be updated or replaced, ”DeLong said.

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

But the Lamont government warned last summer that the alternative was a big new edition that Connecticut was not preparing for.

Connecticut currently reimburses communities between 10% and 71% of new construction and large-scale renovation projects scheduled to last 20 years or more, depending on a community’s wealth.

If a district wants to carry out a smaller project – for example the replacement or modernization of a heating / ventilation system – the entire costs are borne on site.

Coventry community and school officials learned this earlier this summer when the state refused to fund any part of the modernization of the ventilation system for the middle and high schools. The city, which has already begun roof renovation work on these units, also wanted to address the air management issue, but learned that the overall scope was not viewed as a large-scale renovation project – and that the cost of upgrading the ventilation was a local responsibility.

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

Most incurred or projected expenses were in the millions, some in the tens of millions, largely depending on the number of buildings that need air system modernization.

In addition to Coventry, Clinton, Guilford, Madison, Milford, New Britain, New Haven, Newtown, Norwich, Stonington and West Hartford were named.

But Kostantinos Diamantis, who is Lamont’s assistant budget director and has also overseen the state school building program for the past six years, said a big part of the problem is that many communities have put off maintaining their schools for too long, and that includes air management systems .

“There are some counties that haven’t touched their schools in 40 years,” Diamantis told CT Mirror in late August. “The local level has to dare to hit the bar. … The cities are obliged to maintain these buildings. “

In late summer, CCM and the Small Town Council appealed to the Lamont administration to see if more flexibility could be built into the state cost-sharing policy for school construction.

“Our outreach has met opposition and frankly comments that have been both unproductive, insincere and snappy,” DeLong said, adding that it was time lawmakers got involved. Lamont administration officials “have made it clear that when it comes to air quality for our children and educators, they are more interested in pointing than in partnering to solve the problem,” added DeLong.

Jonathan Steinberg, Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, co-chair of the public health committee, said funding all air system costs for schools and other facilities nationwide would cost hundreds of millions of dollars in annual costs.

And since Connecticut finances these projects for years or decades by issuing bonds on Wall Street, the interest component would make the effect worse.

However, Steinberg said lawmakers should try to strike a middle ground at the next session, possibly a program that offers even modest incentives to help communities upgrade or retrofit existing air quality systems.

For more than a decade, Connecticut governors have faced pressure from lawmakers to contain rising costs through one of the most generous school-building cost-sharing programs in the country.

With approximately $ 27 billion in debt securities involving all kinds of capital projects – and more than $ 90 billion in unsecured obligations after retirement and retirement programs – Connecticut owes more per capita than most other states in the country.

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

Connecticut spent approximately $ 450 million last year to support projects in local and regional counties and the state’s technical high schools. That’s about $ 800 million less than six years ago when he led the program.

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