Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks speaks during a Nov. 6 press conference at Forest Heights Elementary School, where Maryland's political leadership will present legislation on a $2.2 billion proposal for public school construction. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)
Prince George's County Executive Angela Alsobrooks speaks during a Nov. 6 press conference at Forest Heights Elementary School, where Maryland's political leadership will present legislation on a $2.2 billion proposal for public school construction. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

Maryland officials want to boost a $2.2 billion public school construction plan they say will improve student achievement.

According to data from the Interagency Commission on School Construction, Baltimore City and Prince George’s and Kent counties have some of the oldest school buildings in Maryland.

That’s why Prince George’s County officials tout the public-private-partnership, or P3, as a way to help speed up the construction process. So far, the county already has five schools slated for completion in three years using the P3 model.

Renovations are underway on a portion of building at Forest Heights Elementary School. Maryland’s political leadership announced a $2.2 billion public school construction proposal to present as legislation when the General Assembly convenes in January. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

The school system would select a private company to handle construction and maintenance, which county officials have said would decrease an estimated $8.5 billion backlog. Once construction is completed and students are inside the schools, the school system would regain control of the buildings.

Prince George’s is marked as the first jurisdiction in the nation to use the P3 model for school construction, especially being the state’s second-largest school system and amongst the top 25 in the country.

“This is something that is being looked at across the country,” said County Executive Angela Alsobrooks. “Over half of our schools are over 50 years old, so the public-private partnership is critical.”

If state lawmakers approve the construction proposal, which would cost about $125 million annually and come mainly from casino revenue, the money would aid jurisdictions such as Prince George’s in building another 13 schools for a total of 18 over the next seven years. Some new schools would replace older buildings slated for demolition.

To accentuate their point, officials stood inside the vacant Forest Heights Elementary School last week. The school’s 300 students will spend the 2019-20 school year at nearby John Hanson Montessori School in Oxon Hill while renovations are completed inside portions of Forest Heights, which opened in 1953.

Prince George’s County Public Schools CEO Monica Goldson said the renovation work that includes some classrooms, the principal’s office and main entrance will cost about $1 million.

The state measure would be introduced as legislation when the General Assembly convenes in January.

Without saying whether a tax increase could be imposed, state lawmakers at last week’s press conference stand firm and confident the measure called the “Built to Learn Act would be approved in both the House and Senate. Democrats are the majority in both chambers.

“We all stand behind the basic principle that every child deserves the best public education regardless of their zip code,” said House Speaker Adrienne Jones of Baltimore County. “House Bill 1 will finally give counties across Maryland an opportunity to make building improvements that are long overdue.”

The legislation would be separate from the ongoing work by the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, also known as the Kirwan Commission. A funding formula work group estimated it would cost $4 billion by 2030 to restructure the state’s public education system.

However, the proposal would require jurisdictions such as Prince George’s and Baltimore City to pay more.

The commission plans to provide a final recommendation this month, but it must be approved by state lawmakers when they convene in January.

Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), whom the Senate Democratic Caucus nominated last month to replace Miller as the new chamber leader, said Gov. Larry Hogan did offer a school construction proposal last year. However, Ferguson said it didn’t support the Kirwan initiative. Hogan has labeled some of the recommendations as the “Kirwan Tax Hike.”

“It’s not just what is happening on the outside of the building, [but] what happens inside is just as important,” Ferguson said. “We will move forward with both because we can’t afford not to.”

Hogan released a statement Wednesday about state leaders’ public school construction plan.

“While they are a year late, we are glad that General Assembly leaders are now endorsing our historic school construction plan,” he said. “Clearly, they recognize that we need to provide school systems — and most importantly, our students—with the healthy, efficient, and modern school buildings they deserve. Now that our legislators are finally making school construction a priority, I certainly look forward to working with them to get it done.”

State lawmakers such as state Sen Obie Patterson (D-District 26) of Fort Washington are prepared to challenge those who oppose the plan.

“If is it sounds like we’ve drawn a line in the sand, we absolutely are,” said Patterson, whose district includes Forest Heights and Oxon Hill. “It is time to do what we need to do and that’s to provide an environment for all kids to have an opportunity to excel.”

Coverage for the Washington Informer includes Prince George’s County government, school system and some state of Maryland government. Received an award in 2019 from the D.C. Chapter of the Society of...

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