Obama's jobs bill may be a boon for schools
President Barack Obama's proposed $25 billion outlay to help modernize 35,000 well-worn public school buildings has left local school officials excited but groping for details.
More than $2 billion is earmarked for Texas schools, part of the $447 billion American Jobs Act of 2011 that Obama outlined in a televised speech last week and submitted to Congress on Monday. It still needs congressional approval.
About 40 percent of the money is earmarked for the 100 largest school districts in the country, including Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington and 16 other districts in Texas. That money -- based on the number of students living in poverty in those districts -- would be dispatched within 60 days of the bill's enactment, according to White House statements.
Among the school districts that would benefit from the bill, Arlington would receive $39.1 million, Fort Worth $84.9 million and Dallas $191.6 million.
"That would be great news," said Bob Carlisle, Arlington's executive director for plant services. "And I have no idea what we'd do with it yet. That would be a discussion we'd have to get into with all parties involved."
The rest of the construction money would be sent to states, based on their proportion of Title I funding for poor students. The states could dole out the money to other high-need school districts, including those in rural areas.
The bill says generally that uses for the money include emergency repairs and renovations, energy efficiency and technology upgrades, asbestos abatement and upgrades to shared community spaces for adult vocational development.
Few details so far
Specifics are scarce.
Carlisle is in the midst of implementing a five-year, $197.5 million bond program that voters approved in November 2009. Many renovations and refurbishing projects are done, but he's got about $18 million in mechanical and roofing projects planned in the short term and "at least that much more" in similar projects to be done by the end of the bond program.
He's not sure which of his projects might qualify for the federal money. And, for example, would the restriction against "new construction" rule out adding a classroom wing? Could the money be used for projects that already have local bond funding lined up?
"At this point, we're like everyone -- just waiting to see what happens," Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said. "It has to go through the whole process first."
Dallas, which is working on a $1.35 billion bond package that residents approved in 2008, could find uses for any extra money, district spokesman Jon Dahlander said.
"There are plenty of opportunities to do more, particularly in terms of modernization," he said. "Close to 75 percent of our schools are more than 40 years old, and the world has changed a lot since they were first built."
The Fort Worth school district is wrapping up a $593.6 million bond project that included building five schools, renovating campuses and upgrading technology. A key piece of the bond project included buying more than 5,000 high-tech interactive whiteboards, enough to place one in each classroom in the district.
"This is all speculative for the moment and the proposal must survive the political process first. Even then, we would have to consider what details might accompany any bill," interim Superintendent Walter Dansby said. "We are always looking for ways to maintain our critical infrastructure, but it is just premature for us to even consider the use of such funds when we have yet to see a whole picture."
Thousands of jobs
The $2 billion in construction funding for Texas would create more than 40,000 total jobs, said economist Ray Perryman of the Waco-based Perryman Group. In the Fort Worth area, each $1 million of school construction funding creates 19.6 jobs, about 1 job less than the state average.
"Two billion dollars is a big number for school construction and could make a sizable difference," Perryman said in an e-mail. "You might want to mention, however, that construction jobs are, by their very nature, temporary."
Along with the public school construction funding, the American Jobs Act includes $5 billion to improve community college buildings, and $30 billion to prevent layoffs of up to 280,000 teachers and to support the hiring of tens of thousands more.
Beyond school funding, the bill would provide tax cuts and incentives for businesses to hire workers; would cut the payroll tax in half; extend unemployment benefits; and fund road and bridge repair.
"This is a plan that does two things," Obama said while stumping for the bill Tuesday at Fort Hayes High School in Columbus, Ohio. "It puts people back to work, and it puts more money in the pockets of working Americans."
Obama proposed to pay for the plan by closing corporate loopholes and raising taxes for the wealthiest Americans, concepts that most Republicans have dug in their heels against, most recently on raising the debt ceiling.
"The president believes that if Congress can act quickly and pass the American Jobs Act, we can not only put workers back on the job rebuilding and modernizing schools across the country, but we can also ensure that those schools will be able to serve future generations of students and communities," said Adam Abrams, a White House spokesman.
Staff writer Eva-Marie Ayala contributed to this report.