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Federal Dollars for School Construction, Round Two

September 22, 2009

By Bruce Buckley
This story first appeared in Engineering News-Record.

Revisiting efforts to funnel federal funds into school construction, the House has approved a measure that would authorize more than $6.5 billion for K-12 public school and community-college projects. The provision is part of a bill, which the House passed on Sept. 17, that would expand the federal loan program for college students and curtail private lending.

The measure would authorize $2.02 billion annually for fiscal 2010 and 2011 for modernization, renovation or repair of K-12 public schools. Another $2.5 billion would be available for new construction or modernization of community colleges, starting in fiscal 2011.

Groups like the American Institute of Architects support the bill and are encouraged to see the House pass it. But Andrew Goldberg, AIA's senior director for federal relations, says the legislation could face a tough battle ahead.

"The outlook for passage in the Senate is unclear," Goldberg says. He notes that the Senate could vote on its version of the college-loan measure by the end of September and says, "That¹s where we¹ve seen roadblocks on school construction for some time."

The House attempted to add school construction funding to what became the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act this winter, calling for $14 billion. But the Senate zeroed out that school-construction provision in the final bill in February.

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Under the new House-passed measure, green design and construction, a major initiative for the Obama administration, factor heavily into the funding requirements. Half of the bill's funds for K-12 school construction would have to be used for green projects in 2010, and 75% of the money would have to be used for such projects in 2011. Half of the funds for community colleges also would be required to go to green projects.

The bill also would establish an advisory council on green, high-performing public school facilities.

In addition, the House measure includes "Buy American" provisions, which call for exclusive use of iron, steel and manufactured goods produced in the U.S. on projects it funds. Buy American language has been a contentious issue for some contractors recently. Brian Turmail, spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, says that similar provisions in the stimulus package have delayed ARRA projects from moving forward.

"We warned before the stimulus was passed that adding new policy initiatives into these types of programs inevitably causes bureaucratic delay," Turmail says. "We hope the Senate will demonstrate the wisdom needed to not tie up this funding in bureaucratic problems associated with Buy American."

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