Concerns over fast-tracking schools in Prince George’s County

Prince George’s County wants to fast track six new schools, but to do it, the school district says it needs to borrow nearly a billion dollars through a public-private partnership.

The district says it would be the first public school system in the country to enter into such an agreement, and some with concerns about such an unprecedented plan held a virtual meeting Monday.

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“Although we’ve been told there are risks, we haven't had a real picture told on what all those risks are, and I think we as a community need to know them, especially seeing what has happened with the Purple Line recently,” said PGCPS board member Raaheela Ahmed.

Ahmed was one of the meeting organizers, along with a group called In the Public Interest which has studied the drawbacks of public-private partnerships.

"The best time to make sure you're making the right decision is at the beginning, instead of trying to do a rush job of amending a contract right before it’s going to be approved," said Shar Habibi, with In the Public Interest.

The school district acknowledges the public-private partnership, with a 3 percent interest rate is more expensive than the use of traditional public bonds for school construction. Under the plan, PGCPS would partner with Fengate Capital Management Ltd. and Gilbane Development Company, Inc., Gilbane Building Company, Stantec, and Honeywell, borrowing nearly a billion dollars over 30 years.

The school system says typical public financing isn’t available for the schools, and the big benefit under the agreement is time:
that it would typically take 12 years to build these six new middle schools, but under this partnership, the work will be done by 2024.

The agreement requires the companies in charge of construction to use 30 percent county-based businesses, an estimated 3000 jobs.

This deal still needs approval from the school board and the vote is happening next Wednesday.

Some at the meeting argued the process is moving too quickly.

"We're not talking about not providing Prince George's County Public Schools systems with new schools, that's not what we're against here. We're against this method that is extremely lacking transparency, is moving at a very high rate, that is taking away Maryland's responsibility to provide a certain amount of funding to Prince George's County for school construction," said community member Janna Parker.

The school district will be presenting their plan to the county council Tuesday afternoon.