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NH Schools To Compete For State Construction Aid

Norma Love, Associated Press
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CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire is ending nearly six decades of providing school construction aid to all comers this month when a new law takes effect that uses a ranking system to determine which projects get funded.

The law wipes out a practice in place since 1955 that set no limits on who could get aid and replaces it with one where schools compete for limited aid dollars.

“The days of the golden goose are gone,” said Rep. Lynne Ober, a Hudson Republican who chaired negotiations between the House and Senate that produced the law.

For the first time, the state is capping aid at $50 million annually, but only $6.2 million of that is available for new projects the first year. The rest is earmarked to pay off the state’s roughly $540 million share of 360 existing projects.

It will take 30 years to pay off the projects already in progress, but as the state pays the debt more money will become available for new projects.

The new system will be a marked improvement only if lawmakers lift the cap to address a backlog built up over a three-year moratorium that ends June 30, said Mark Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association.

“We would have supported $30 million (more). That would have been a workable number, but right now we’ve got $6 million,” said Joyce.

Under the old construction aid system, the state paid a share each year of the principal borrowed to build or renovate a school and stretched payments over the life of the school bond. The state’s share ranges from 30 to 60 percent of the principal.

Under the new system, the state will pay its percentage up front so local taxpayers don’t have to borrow as much or pay interest on a larger bond, but closer state scrutiny comes with the aid.

Schools with approved projects will get 80 percent immediately and the balance when construction is completed and the state verifies the final cost.

Schools built with state aid under the new law also must be used as schools for 20 years or taxpayers must repay the state.

Interim rules laying out the guidelines for the competition are due Nov. 1 with the final rules due April 30.

Ed Murdough, administrator of the state’s bureau of school approval and facility management, is in charge of preparing the rules and plans to assign points to a list of criteria. Unsafe conditions will receive the highest consideration.

Overcrowding, population shifts, fiscal capacity measured by the percentage of children receiving free and subsidized meals and whether the district made a reasonable effort to maintain buildings are some of the other factors that will be measured. In their applications, school districts must include a plan to maintain the proposed buildings. Districts also will be asked to include alternatives to new construction, such as renovating older buildings.

If the project is ranked high due to a request for aid to address safety issues, Murdough also wants to be sure those issues are resolved.

“We’ve had instances in the past where people have put nice new additions on decrepit buildings,” said Murdough.

The deadline for applications for the first round of funding is Sept. 1, 2013.

The rankings for the first projects will be made by a six-member committee that fall. The state Board of Education must approve them, probably in December 2013. The board must post the list by Jan. 15, 2014.

Getting on the list does not assure funding.

A community’s government must approve a project once it makes the list. Then applicants must wait to see how many communities on the list approve projects and how far the money will go. If a community votes not to fund a project, the next project in line moves up. If not enough money is left, a community can accept partial funding or decline and hope to make the following year’s list.

“The only people who know for sure (they will get funding) are the ones prioritized number one,” said Murdough.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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