Opinion: P3 Model Is a Better Plan for Building Schools in Prince George’s

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Prince George’s County Public Schools is experiencing unprecedented student enrollment growth. With more than 136,500 students, enrollment has grown by nearly 13,000 students since the 2012-13 academic year.

The rapid growth, however, has left our elementary schools bursting at the seams — many exceed state-rated capacity, as high as 160%. Our growing pool of middle school students literally has nowhere to go.

New schools are clearly the answer. The construction timetable is the question. Under the normal process, it would take 12 years to build six new schools.

Our students cannot wait that long, so we have developed a better solution.

With support from county government partners, we have begun our public-private partnership for school construction, a more than $30 million annual investment over the next 30 years. Under the P3 model, we will have the six middle schools built within four years — an impossible proposition under the current public procurement approach.

By streamlining procurement and identifying efficiencies, we will relieve overcrowding in more than 12 schools and get over 8,000 students into the modern facilities they deserve.

The P3 model is not a panacea for our school construction program, nor is it intended to be. It is a significant step forward in easing our $8.5 billion maintenance budget backlog.

In addition to massive overcrowding, Prince George’s County school buildings are on average 45 years old, the second-oldest school stock in the state. Under the best circumstances, our school system will receive only a third of the billions needed to update our facilities over the next 20 years. We will never catch up to the needs doing what we’ve always done.

Budget impact has been at the forefront of our thinking from the very beginning, as we do not take lightly our responsibility to be prudent with public funds.

As currently anticipated, the P3 will account for 7% to 8% of the annual capital program budget — not insignificant, to be sure, but hardly rising to the threat of bankruptcy. PGCPS has a number of replacement and new schools on a parallel construction path using traditional funding sources, which absorb the bulk of the budget.

This model would have been helpful last year when only weeks before the first day of school, we discovered that a school building was in danger of collapse. The structural supports at 67-year-old Forest Heights Elementary had eroded, making the school unsafe for over 350 students, teachers and staff who were due to enter its doors in less than two weeks. The repair costs to date have exceeded $1 million, an unforeseen hit to the capital projects budget.

Utilizing the P3 model ensures that PGCPS avoids any unexpected — and unbudgeted — maintenance issues at these schools over the term of the 30-year partnership. And at the end of the partnership, each school is expected to avoid major maintenance costs for another 15 years. This will create significant savings for PGCPS, which currently spends more than 40% of the annual capital improvement budget on school systemic renovations, repairs and replacements.

In addition to savings for the school system, the P3 is structured to be an economic stimulus for the Prince George’s County community, and a catalyst for local Minority-Based Enterprise and County-Based Business participation. The selected partner will have an unwaivable requirement to procure at least 30% of the total cost of the program with local MBEs and CBBs. These are real dollars that will provide a jolt to the local economy.

Prince George’s County Public Schools knows how to manage the school building process — from design to construction to delivery — and has used that knowledge and expertise to accurately allocate risk.

The decision to pursue the P3 required due diligence and consultation with stakeholders at every level of government. No delivery model is without risk. However, we have struck a balance between the public good and public needs in order to best serve those with the largest stake in our success — our students.

— JASON WASHINGTON

The writer is the public-private partnerships director for Prince George’s County Public Schools.