Aura Air system on a school bus Credit: Contrbuted photo

With a December 1 deadline looming for school districts to apply for funding to fix aging HVAC systems in their schools, a coalition of education and municipal organizations is asking the state to end a prohibition against towns and cities using American Rescue Plan Act funds to match for such projects. 

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS) and the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE) on Tuesday released a statement calling for leaders including Gov. Ned Lamont, members of the legislature and the state Department of Administrative Services to consider making any adjustments necessary to allow local governments to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to match any money awarded through a grant program specifically for these improvements.

Lamont announced in September that his administration will release $150 million to help upgrade heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in Connecticut public schools to improve air filtration. DAS’s Office of School Construction Grants and Review oversees the program.

However, if local governments can’t use the funds from the ARPA to match, then local taxpayers will become more burdened than they already are at a time when they are facing rising costs due to inflation. 

“It’s not a good time to put it into the property taxes,”  CCM Executive Director and CEO Joe DeLong said.

In addition, the group is asking the state Department of Administrative Services – which oversees these grants – and the legislature to give local districts more time beyond Dec. 1 to apply. 

“We don’t want to see any of these projects not get funding because they run out of time to get their applications done and get their analysis done,” DeLong said. 

He added that while the coalition recognizes that current state law prohibits federal funds like ARPA to be used as the local match for the school construction grant process, he added that more than likely not the legislative intent when it comes to funding air quality and ventilation improvements. 

Lamont said he was looking into it.

“I’ve got to check and make sure it fits within the federal guidelines but otherwise, I’d be supportive. I mean, there were sources they can use as they see fit, broadly speaking within COVID-related catch up. So I’d be sympathetic,” Lamont said Tuesday.

According to the statement issued by the coalition, “If it was intended, then the legislation would have been specifically written in that manner or at least incorporated within the school construction section of the state statues.” 

The $150 million, DeLong points out, includes $74 million in ARPA funds. He said “the optics aren’t good” when the state creates a program using ARPA funds, but then doesn’t allow local governments to use their ARPA funds.

The group cited state and federal grants administered by the Department of Energy Services and Public Protection, including school security grants “that were administered outside of the school construction program and did not have the same burdensome requirements as stipulated for the HVAC grant,” according to their statement. 

However, DAS officials say that this pilot program provides reimbursement grants for stand-alone HVAC and air quality improvement projects that wouldn’t qualify for any of its existing programs.

DAS Commissioner Michelle Gilman said her office has met with members of both CAPSS and Connecticut Education Association as well as held two well-attended webinars for schools.

“The program was developed with the parameters established in state law for existing reimbursement school construction grants and in a way to leverage the limited funding provided,” she said. “DAS is excited to offer school districts state dollars towards these types of stand-alone projects for the first time and looks forward to working with all stakeholders to improve indoor air quality in our schools.”  

In addition, DAS said, while municipalities may use ARPA or other state or local funds to reduce the overall cost of their HVAC or indoor air quality improvement projects, they may not use those outside funds to cover their local share after the state’s grant reimbursement has been applied. 

DAS provided this example – if a district has a project cost of $100, a reimbursement rate of 50 percent and $20 of ARPA funds, then it can use the $20 of ARPA funds to reduce the total project cost from $100 to $80 at the outset, and then get a grant for $80 with a 50% reimbursement rate. But it can’t get a grant for $100 with a 50% reimbursement rate (meaning a $50 municipal share and a $50 reimbursement from the state), and then use the $20 to reduce the $50 municipal share.

DeLong said that he has found Gilman to be very communicative.

“She has been great. She has been very responsive,” he said.