After decades of Connecticut failing to make adequate contributions, our teachers’ pensions are only 51.3% funded. Teachers’ retirements are at risk and Connecticut taxpayers on the hook for $18 billion for past services. Where did the education dollars go?
Over the past 20 years, according to state government data, Connecticut spent $7.6 billion subsidizing school construction. If we had put the construction subsidies into the pension fund (based on the historical investment performance), the teachers’ pension plan would have $18.2 billion in additional assets and, today, our teachers would be looking at a secure retirement with a fully funded pension plan.
Connecticut’s school construction reimbursement formula encourages districts to seek “free money” from the state. Districts are reimbursed 10-80% of certain construction costs, depending on the economic condition of the district. Magnet schools get 100% funding and have no cost limits. A good example of these incentives at work was a recent public hearing for Region 18 where the consulting architect urged the school board to focus on the “net cost” to the district ranging from $42 – $63 million, not the total cost of the proposed project.
This incentive system discourages districts from managing the total cost of their projects and passes the burden on to the state – which we all pay for in the end. As a result, Connecticut has struggled to control school construction costs. A 2018 report by the Connecticut State & School Finance Project found that construction costs grew 64% faster than inflation from 2000 to 2012 – hitting $458 per square foot in 2013. The proposed Region 18 project to replace HVAC systems and bring buildings to code is currently estimated at $27.3 million for the district’s 41 pre-K – 5 classrooms – an eye watering $666,000 per classroom, after state subsidies.
While school construction is necessary, and many schools, particularly in poorer rural and urban areas, are utilitarian, examples of extravagance abound:
- $3 billion was spent on Hartford magnet schools, which have seen disappointing enrollment.
- Groton voters approved a $185 million construction project – the largest school construction referendum in Connecticut history, with $100 million in state subsidies.
- Torrington is building a new High School at a cost of $159 million. Renovating the existing building would have cost $112 million, but would not have qualified for $99.4 million of state subsidies, thus for the voters of Torrington spending $47 million more on a new building was less expensive.
To add insult to injury – we now find that the Department of Construction services is involved in bid rigging and no-bid contracts – with Konstantinos Diamantis, of the state’s Office of Policy Management, telling districts that if they wanted projects approved they must use construction companies he chose for no-bid contracts.
With student population forecast to shrink 9.2% over the next 10 years – how much should we spend on school construction going forward?
Buildings don’t teach children, teachers teach children. Our children should have a safe comfortable learning environment, but Connecticut doesn’t need any more monuments to ego. Let’s put our education dollars where they matter, putting capable, inspirational teachers in our classrooms.