UPPER MARLBORO — Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) is only a few years into its 20-year capital improvements plan, but progress is already slow. Now the system is looking for new strategies to increase the number of projects it can accomplish in a year.
Recent legislation and a change in capital programs leadership are contributing factors to the PGCPS Capital Improvement Program (CIP) office looking into new ways it can expedite its plans. Shawn Matlock, the CIP director, and his team presented many strategies at the May 10 board of education meeting that the school system could employ in the coming years.
Public-Private Partnerships (P3s) and supports recently passed by the Maryland General Assembly are at the forefront of options the school system might have in the future, Matlock said. Both options could help PGCPS tackle capital projects in the coming years and allow the system to move through its list of renovations and replacements quicker.
“Traditional methods of obtaining optimal utilization at the schools will not work anymore,” said Ronald Kauffman, a facility planning consultant for PGCPS. “It’s going to take a combination of solutions to solve these challenges. The implementation of multiple solutions is essential to use the capital funding more efficiently.”
Over the past several years, PGCPS has witnessed a severe increase in enrollment in Northern Prince George’s County as well as a countywide increase in enrollment of 9,000 students since 2013. Data, presented by Rhianna McCarter, a planning and school boundaries specialist, predicts an additional increase of 8,000 students over the next seven years.
With increased enrollment, especially in the North, the school system has encountered a number of challenges, Kauffman said.
“The majority of our schools are either over or under-enrolled,” he said. “We’re currently experiencing over-utilization inside the Beltway, above Central Avenue and some of the challenges of that are increased classroom sizes, higher student-to-teacher ratios, overcrowded course spaces, cafeterias, auditoriums and media centers, reduced parking and vehicle circulation.”
On the other side, under-enrolled schools are left with vacant classrooms, an inability to hire specialty teachers full time and higher costs per students to operate the building. Vacant classrooms and underutilized schools also alter how much the state is willing to allocate to the county for projects based on addressing overcrowding.
Up to this point, Kauffman said, PGCPS has utilized a number of temporary solutions to help with overcrowding. Those strategies include adding and using portable classrooms, altering boundaries to shift students to under-utilized facilities and creating new regional programs to artificially change enrollment.
“The majority of the growth that occurred over the last seven years has been relieved by portable classrooms,” Kauffman said, noting PGCPS is currently using nearly 470 temporaries at 88 school sites. “Currently, many of the sites do not have any more space to have any portable classrooms where we need it.”
Of the 542 temporaries in the school system’s inventory, more than 40 percent are older than 25 years, and each new unit costs approximately $95,000.
Beyond temporary solutions, PGCPS is in the process of building several new schools, replacing a few and renovating others to both increase capacity and improve the quality. That includes the replacement of William Wirt Middle School and the building of two new middle schools, the International High School and a new elementary and high school all in the northern area of the county. However, Kauffman said it could take “four to five years” just to complete the two projects in design (Wirt and the International School) and just one additional middle school.
This is where the new strategies come in to play, Matlock said.
“One of the things we’re looking to do is to develop a P3,” he said.
A P3, in essence, is a contracted partnership between the school system, county and a private business to help facilitate the construction of buildings for the school system. The private company would build a new school facility from a pot of funds from their company, the school system and the county and then essentially rent the building to PGCPS. The private organization would be in charge of maintenance, such as HVAC repairs, for the lifecycle of the building. And rent would be lowered for inconveniences such as no heating or cooling or leaks.
“We’re looking at something like a $25 million ask that would be a stream of income that would be used for, what’s called, an availability payment. And that availability payment would go to a private partner who would construct and maintain the buildings that we would build this partnership,” Matlock said.
Matlock said the initial idea is “to build five to seven schools” with the majority of those schools being in Northern Prince George’s County.
However, Matlock said the idea is still preliminary as the school system works through logistics. PGCPS will likely hire a P3 expert in the coming months to help navigate through the new process. But if the new strategy is successful, the school system could alter how it uses CIP funds awarded from the state.
A majority of state funds would be used, then, for staged renovations, which would be broken out into five different types of renovations: 1) the healthy school system, which includes HVAC work, exterior works and plumbing, 2) core elements, which is work on the cafeteria, kitchen, hallways and gyms, 3) core classrooms, which focuses on classroom renovations that include wiring for new technology and new lighting, 4) safe schools, otherwise known as security upgrades and 5) safe passages, which is work on the parking lots and driveways.
“What we’ve decided to do is change the delivery system. So some of the buildings...They would be buildings that we could deliver earlier,” he said. “So, instead of building new buildings, we’re finding buildings that (have) good bones that need updates.”
Matlock hypothesizes that 11 or 12 schools could be renovated this way to reduce the overall capital spent and sets PGCPS up to get “a bigger match” in funds from the state.
Other strategies, Matlock said, would focus on bringing costs down while not giving up quality, such as using prefabricated buildings.
The public will be consulted as the school system moves forward with their new strategies and new committees are expected in the coming months.