The Prince George’s County Council had been scheduled to vote on a resolution advancing a $1.24 billion plan to build six new schools by 2024 and maintain them for 30 years after that.
But council members questioned whether the partnership would require sufficient involvement of minority-owned businesses and transparency regarding financial calculations. They also questioned the timing of the project’s launch amid the pandemic.
County Council Chair Todd M. Turner (D-District 4), whose motion to hold the resolution passed unanimously, did not set a date for a new vote.
The resolution outlined the governance structure for the partnership in a memorandum of understanding. It is separate from the contract that the Prince George’s County Board of Education is scheduled to vote on next week, said Christian Rhodes, chief of staff to schools leader Monica Goldson.
The school system announced earlier this month that Fengate Capital Management and Gilbane Building Co. would lead construction for the project; Stantec would lead design; and Honeywell would service the new school buildings.
Criticism of the project has grown in recent weeks, with a coalition of advocates and community members saying it is poorly timed given the financial uncertainty created by job losses and business closures, and lack of clarity about when and under what learning conditions children will return to schools.
“Two years ago this was a great idea,” council member Jolene Ivey (D-District 5) said. “But two years ago we didn’t know that we would be in a pandemic . . . I’m not sure we have taken the time to truly regroup.”
Prince George’s, which has the second-largest school system in Maryland, has said it will not return students to classrooms until at least late January.
“There are a lot of questions about what classrooms are going to look like going forward,” said Jeremy Mohler, communications director for the think tank In the Public Interest, which helped organized a town hall on the project Monday. “With a P3, there is a particular danger about not being flexible when it comes to those changes. When you are signing a 30-year contract you are locking yourself in.”
Opponents of public-private partnerships, known as P3s, also are pointing to the Purple Line, a 16-mile light rail line running from New Carrollton in Prince George’s to Bethesda in Montgomery County. The project has been beset by delays and a prolonged legal battle, and stalled last month after the construction contractor quit.
Goldson told the council that the decision to move forward with the project was based on the numbers. School officials estimate the system would build the schools eight years sooner using the public-private model, and save approximately $174 million.
But Suchitra Balachandran, of Our Revolution Prince George’s, said she wants to see a full audit of the school system’s own construction process to see why it is so much slower and more expensive.
“When our elected officials are saying, ‘Well it takes us 12 years to build a school,’ have you looked at why?,” Balachandran, who spoke at the council meeting and at a Monday’s town hall, said in an interview. “What is the history of funding in the last 40 years that leaves Prince George’s in this position? Have we blown our budget, or have we not received the funding needed to keep our schools in a good position?”
The town hall was also hosted by Progressive Maryland, Our Revolution Prince George’s County and Prince George’s County Young Democrats. Advocates questioned why the school system has not provided a full “value for money” analysis that would include calculations and financial assumptions used to determine that the project would save money.
They also asked for more transparency and opportunities for public input. They said they want school board members to have oversight during the final stages of negotiations between the county and the private companies leading construction, which would unfold over the next few months.
At the council session Tuesday, council member Mel Franklin (D-At Large) said he would like to see more work reserved for minority-owned businesses, especially in a majority Black county where Black business owners have long felt excluded from lucrative public contracts. The contract requires that 30 percent of the county’s money go to minority-owned firms; 20 percent of that going to minority-owned businesses based in Prince George’s.
The schools that would be rebuilt under the contract are Drew-Freeman Middle School, Hyattsville Middle School, Kenmoor Middle School and Walker Mill Middle School.
In addition, a new middle school would be constructed in the Adelphi area, and a kindergarten through eighth grade school would be built in the southern part of the county.