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)
**FILE** Forest Heights Elementary School in Forest Heights, Maryland (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

Prince George’s County Council voted Tuesday to approve a resolution on a working agreement with the public school system to build six new schools through an ambitious $1.2 billion public-private partnership (P3) project.

Eight council members voted in support of the plan that some called “historic” because the county would be the first jurisdiction in the country to use the P3 program to construct several schools.

“I think it’s the right proposal at the right time, but I want to thank both sides of the debate for the engagement,” said Mel Franklin (D-At-Large) of Upper Marlboro, one of the eight council members to adopt the resolution. “I also want to encourage our partners on the board of education. I hope they will approve this proposal [Wednesday]. I think it’s historic for the county.”

Three of his colleagues — Monique Anderson-Walker, Tom Dernoga and Jolene Ivey — abstained.

They expressed concerns during a council’s committee of the whole meeting last week on more transparency in the process and the timing to pursue this plan during COVID-19 without fully knowing how classrooms would look once children return to schools.

“While I 100 percent agree with the intent and the goals [and] I feel like I have enough information to vote ‘aye,’ I’m just going to abstain so that I’m not viewed as impeding progress,” Ivey said. “But I do want to send a message of concern just to know the details.”

Before Tuesday’s vote, officials and advocates held two separate meetings Monday to discuss the plan.

The first, a one-hour tele-town hall with more than 17,000 listeners, featured Prince George’s County Public Schools CEO Monica Goldson and County Executive Angela Alsobrooks voicing their support for the project known as P3, which they reiterated would address an $8.5 billion backlog in school construction and help built schools at a much faster rate.

Roland Polite, a senior at Oxon Hill High School which has a science and technology program, called in to express his support for the project.

“Usually people talk about the students, but they rarely talk with us,” he said. “I can speak from experience about what the newer space and better design in technology adds. We should all support this plan and help upgrade schools across the county as quickly as possible.”

In another virtual session held about an hour later by Keep PGCPS Public Coalition, some residents and advocates expressed concern about the project in terms of funding, specific project details and what the conditions will be when children return to school, especially amid a global pandemic.

Because of the novel coronavirus, students continue school through virtual learning and may not return to classrooms until February.

“No one said they didn’t want to stop school construction. No one is against the construction of schools in Prince George’s County,” said Janna Parker, an education advocate of Temple Hills. “What we have asked are questions that we have not received answers to.”

Both discussions got held one day before County Council’s scheduled to vote Tuesday on a resolution for a working agreement with the school system on the P3 project.

The school board plans to discuss and possibly vote Wednesday on a contract with several companies to building and maintain the schools over a 30-year period.

Fengate Capital Management, headquartered in Toronto, Canada, and Gilbane Development Co., based in Providence, Rhode Island, would lead and manage the project. Stantec, an architecture firm with offices in northwest D.C. and Laurel, Maryland, serves as lead architect, and Honeywell of Charlotte, North Carolina, as the services provider.

If approved, Prince George’s would serve as the first school system in the nation to build several schools through a public-private partnership.

The six schools proposed for construction in about three years are Adelphia Area, Drew Freeman, Hyattsville, Kenmoor and Walker Mill middle schools and Southern Area K-8 school.

Prince George’s ranks among the top jurisdictions in Maryland with old buildings, which the county highlights with 40 percent constructed nearly 60 years ago.

According to a summary agreement, about 30 percent of total contracts would be designated for minority-owned businesses and a minimum of 20 percent toward those located in Prince George’s.

David Harrington, president and CEO of the county’s Chamber of Commerce, asked Alsobrooks about economic development and jobs the project would bring to the jurisdiction.

Alsobrooks said an estimated $225 million would be allocated to hire local and minority-owned businesses (about $130 million in the first four years), implement workforce development programs, student internships and create more than 3,000 jobs.

Education helps attracts other companies such as Amazon to the county, she said.

“All of those companies ask the question about our schools. They want to see us demonstrate that we actually value education and that we are making the right investments in education,” she said. “This makes a very loud statement not only to our children and our families…but this also makes the right statement to the businesses that we hope to attract here and the jobs that we need to attract.”

School board Raaheela Ahmed, who helped lead the coalition presentation, had a response about bringing in businesses to the county.

“We shouldn’t be catering to big businesses, we should be catering to our people,” she said.

Another disagreement from opponents deals with how quickly all six schools would be constructed. School officials estimate the P3 plan allows for them to be built eight years sooner. In addition, opponents want to see a value for money analysis, a cost comparison that includes financial calculations to compare whether a P3 model works better than traditional forms of public procurement.

“If this was so [much more] wonderful than the traditional mode of school construction, why aren’t other schools doing this?” said Suchitra Balachandran of College Park, who chairs the steering committee for Our Revolution Prince George’s. “We still maintain P3s are risky, expensive and secretive.”

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