A group of town leaders, boards of education and teacher unions appealed Thursday to lawmakers to pressure Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration to boost state funding for projects to improve air quality in Connecticut schools.
During a remote press conference, the groups, representing small and large towns, superintendents, educators and school workers, described widespread concerns stemming from aging or malfunctioning ventilation systems in schools across Connecticut.
And despite the scrutiny of air quality driven by the airborne COVID-19 pandemic, municipal groups complained that state policy would not dedicate funding to help towns pay for projects to replace ventilation systems or install air conditioning in schools.
Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, told reporters their requests to the Lamont administration were either ignored or countered with “snarky” and sometimes inaccurate statements. Officials suggested that towns should use their own pandemic relief funds to foot the bill, DeLong said.
“Setting aside the question of how long do you need to feed at government trough before you consider taxpayer dollars yours or mine, the statement ignores that in many towns across Connecticut, the expense of replacing an outdated or dysfunctional air quality system is more than the entire allotment that towns receive in [American Rescue Plan Act] funding,” DeLong said.
DeLong called it “bizarre” that state school construction funds could be used to offset the costs of projects to replace windows or aging roofs but not outdated air quality systems.
In an email, the groups cited almost a dozen towns and cities attempting ventilation improvement projects including Clinton, Coventry, Guilford, Madison, Milford, New Britain, New Haven, Newtown, Norwich, Stonington and West Hartford. Some of the projects were estimated to cost tens of millions of dollars.
Kostantinos Diamantis, a deputy secretary at the Office of Policy and Management who directs an office for school construction grants, said Thursday that much of the problem stemmed from a failure by towns to properly maintain their existing ventilation systems.
“You don’t change the oil in your car, you’re going to have a cracked block,” Diamantis said. “They want us to fix what it is they didn’t do and it’s not that easy… Taxpayers should not be spending dollars to make up for the fact that a particular community failed to maintain their systems, and now everybody else is going to have to pay for it.”
DeLong said it was wrong to assume the only reason ventilation systems stopped functioning was because a town had done something wrong. He called on lawmakers to get involved on the issue.
“The General Assembly has a role to play in approving Governor Lamont’s ARPA spending plan and no plan should be approved until providing an acceptable breathing environment in our schools is a priority for the state,” he said.
Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association, said that 97% of teachers in a recent CEA survey reported that their biggest concerns about their working conditions stemmed from indoor air quality and ventilation. Only 27% believed the problem was being addressed, she said.
“This is quickly becoming an equity issue as well because what you have really lining up across the state are the haves and the have-nots,” Dias said. “Given that there’s a very strong connection between the indoor air quality, the quality of the experience in the classroom and the ability to learn, it really is creating additional barriers to learning that are unnecessary and really disproportionate affect a population that doesn’t need one more barrier.”
Thursday’s press conference also included representatives of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, the Council of Small Towns, AFT Connecticut, and CSEA SEIU Local 2001.