When it comes to building new schools, there’s a lot we know and a lot we don’t.
We know, for instance, that they take time and money — both of which are in short supply for school systems. We know that old approaches do not always yield the best results.
Alternative construction finance — also known as public-private partnerships — is a new way to build public schools in our community and a new approach to a persistent challenge that communities all over America face.
Today, looking back across the past 50 years that our nation has invested billions of public dollars to build schools, our traditional approach has failed. The overcrowding is still here. The maintenance problems are still here.
It’s time to try something different.
We need a new, innovative approach to building out the much-needed classrooms for our students.
Let’s try alternative construction finance.
Prince George’s County Public Schools is the first school system in Maryland to give this method a try. If approved, it will result in six new schools to serve 8,000 students.
So, what’s the difference from the normal school construction process?
First and foremost, it reduces the amount of time needed to add critical classroom space, which is a must. Secondly, by streamlining the procurement process, this approach can award a contract to build multiple schools at once. It will implement a design-build process that requires the architect and builder to work together from Day One. In addition, it improves maintenance by including high-performance standards for building upkeep for a period of 30 years.
Is this a perfect panacea for what ails our public school system? We don’t know.
Here’s what we do know: By attracting private financing and investors, it creates an upfront funding stream that the school system simply does not have for urgently needed classrooms.
We know that if the past approach worked well, there would be no need to consider a new methodology like this one.
Without question, if this method is approved, then the Prince George’s County Board of Education will need to set up procurement, management and evaluation procedures that clearly define attainable outcomes. The school system and school board must move forward aggressively to build out the much-needed classrooms while holding all parties responsible for the final product as well as provide stiff penalties for non-performance.
Equity must be the driving force behind every decision we make for our children, schools and communities. Under its alternative construction finance plan, proposed developer Prince George’s County Education and Community Partners is fully committed to equitable opportunities for local minority- and women-owned businesses.
There are questions and concerns on both sides, but here’s why I believe this new approach is worth a try: our students, our schools and our communities.
I urge you, let’s try it.
— GLORIA G. LAWLAH
The writer, a former state senator and Maryland secretary of the Department of Aging, is a member of the Interagency Commission on Public School Construction.