UPPER MARLBORO – Obtaining funding for Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) capital improvements is like playing chess – one has to make the right moves at the right time to get the desired end result.
But it’s not a game to the PGCPS administration, nor to the Prince George’s County Council, as the two try to address a myriad of maintenance issues within the aging school infrastructure. With a large percentage of the school system’s inventory older than 40 years old, both PGCPS and county representatives are looking for ways to address the large maintenance backlog and get students into safe and clean learning environments.
“We have to confront this issue of – we just don’t have the funds to do everything we know we should be doing,” said Kevin Maxwell, chief executive officer of PGCPS.
The school system’s capital improvements were the main topic at a recent meeting between the school system and the county council’s committee of the whole, which was held on May 10. The two governmental bodies discussed a number of projects on the school system’s wish list and on the priority list for each individual council member.
Two topics that continued to come up during the discussion were how the video lottery terminal (VLT) money from the first few quarters of MGM National Harbor were going to be spent, and the ambiguous process of obtaining and using state money for school projects.
Both of those topics came together when Maxwell, his team and Councilman Obie Patterson, who represents District 8, where MGM National Harbor resides and the area it directly impacts, debated how VLT money should be spent at Crossland High School.
“I would caution the use of VLT monies as a means of supplementing,” Patterson said. “We have legislation that says specifically if more monies come in than expected… it has to go back through the Local Development Council.”
As it stands, the school system wants to deviate from the original plan and use the VLT money to help renovate and install a new track at Crossland High School rather than use the funds to fix the piping system. The VLT money would help PGCPS reach sufficient funding for the project, which includes correcting site drainage.
Maxwell said PGCPS has received money from the state to address the piping issues and he would prefer to use state money for that specific item rather than “send it back,” because the Local Development Council agreed to use VLT money to fund it.
Although Maxwell said PGCPS wants to be able to spend state money wherever possible, the funds allocated from the state can be both a benefit and a hindrance, as state funds come with caveats.
Both Maxwell and Council Vice Chair Dannielle Glaros noted they ran into potential issues with fixes to William Wirt Middle School. Glaros said if the school system had taken money to make maintenance fixes at the middle school, that total would have been deducted from the funding award for any future replacement budget.
“As the buildings are aging, if we use state money for any maintenance projects in schools, we have to deduct that out if the project gets approved anytime within, I think, 16 years,” Maxwell said. “It is just something to keep in mind as the building keep getting older and then the maintenance costs come in.”
That is something the school system has to keep in mind as its multi-year and multi-phased plan to address over crowding and maintenance issues with PGCPS buildings continues to be pushed back due to lack of funds. Does PGCPS take state money for smaller projects like HVAC systems and piping and risk those parts of a school’s future renovation or replacement not being cover?
“And I am personally aware of that because of our discussion of William Wirt Middle School,” Glaros said. “And that was part of the whole discussion because we could have moved forward and started to do some of the repairs, but then we would lose out on the funding allocation from the state.”
The longer PGCPS has to defer projects, Maxwell noted, the larger the cost of maintenance. Ultimately, the county could be stuck paying for it later, he said.
This year, the county is investing approximately $100.6 million into the PGCPS capital improvements program for fiscal year 2018 for approximately 60 projects. Some of those projects include the Tulip Grove Elementary renovation, the new International School building in Langley Park, and the finishing stages of the new Fairmont Heights High School.
Other projects on the fiscal year 2018 docket include the beginning stages of the two new northern-area middle schools and a $2.7 million grant for four turf athletic fields at Northwestern, Bowie, Charles H. Flowers and Eleanor Roosevelt high schools.
However, that amount of money is a decrease from the projected PGCPS capital improvements spending for the current fiscal year, which Maxwell took note of. He said the county government is continuing a trend of underfunding the school system, especially in light of the state decreasing its contribution over the past several years.
“The capital (budget) is something that is challenging to all of us,” he said. “And I know that while everyone gets tired of hearing me say that it takes resources to fix stuff, that is the truth.”
Maxwell said the only way to keep the 20-year capital improvements plan on track is with additional resources, and keeping funding at the same levels is not going to accomplish anything.
At the same time, Maxwell said he understands the limitations the council faces as it attempts to fund new fire and police stations, better community college facilities and other capital improvements. Still, he said, the school system can’t do more than it has money for.
“We have had to defer a number of projects and we will continue to have to do that unless more revenue comes forward,” Maxwell said.