RIVERDALE – Plans for the replacement of one of the oldest middle schools in Prince George’s County are finally moving forward as Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) looks for an architect for the project.
Last week, County Councilwoman Dannielle Glaros and the PGCPS capital improvements office staff held a meeting at William Wirt Middle School to update the community on the work already done and the next steps in the replacement of the school that was built in the 1950s. The new school is expected to open to students in August 2020.
“William Wirt Middle School is our oldest middle school in the entire county. We’re completely over capacity here, and in fact we have issues with mold and leaking from the roofs and it’s been requested numerous times by students and faculty,” Glaros said. “It’s really exciting to get it to this point – to be able to do the design and hopefully get us ready to deliver the construction dollars.”
William Wirt is one of only a few projects the school system is undertaking in the next decade that was not pushed back two years. Recently, the school system announced that its 20-year plan would have several delays due to “chronic underfunding” from both the county and state.
However, the middle school, along with the International School at Langley Park and the two new northern-area middle schools, are moving forward in their planning phases. Elizabeth Chaisson and Ajay Rawat, planners with the school system, said although PGCPS does not have the full funding to build each project, they do have state and county funds for the planning phases.
The William Wirt Middle School replacement comes years after the school was placed on PGCPS’ radar as a building that needed major renovations. It was during the system’s contracted Master Plan Support Project research that outside contractors determined the building would be better off replaced.
One large reason the building is no longer viable is the distance between the floors and ceilings creates steep energy costs for heating and cooling, Chaisson said. At the same time, Glaros pointed toward leaking roofs and windows, mold in the building and general non-functioning of critical parts of the building. She called the replacement “long overdue.”
“This is such a big deal. This school is falling apart,” she said. “This will become a real beacon in the community. We have not built or fully replaced a school in this district in an incredibly long time. This will be the first one to come out of the ground in at least 50 years.”
But Chaisson said the cycle for a school renovation or replacement is a long one with many steps that can be hard for the public to follow. PGCPS must go through several rounds of presenting the plans for a project to the state and county to ask for funding and, while the school system may have money to initiate planning and design, that does not mean funding for actual construction will be on time or come all at once.
“You basically have to put out the idea, the vision. Then you have to ask for the money and everybody has to look at it and approve it. Once the money is there, then the architect can be hired,” she said. “We’re going to have to do this again when we ask for construction money and that’s going to be key. That’s why we want to keep all of you involved.”
Still, Glaros and the PGCPS planners said they wanted to update the community about the progress before school let out for the summer. Glaros said the project is at a “critical junction” as PGCPS plans to select an architecture firm this summer and finish the design stage by late fall.
Glaros said the county and school system want to be sure PGCPS and Prince George’s County are in a “good position” to leverage funds when they go before the state in the fall.
“If we waited, we could miss our cycle and William Wirt is too valuable to miss the cycle. That would mean we would have to wait an entire other year,” Glaros said.
Generally speaking, Rawat said the school system expects to have a meeting on the design of the estimated $81 million project in late fall. He expects permits on the building to be pulled in Spring 2018 with construction following in Fall 2018. If all goes according to plan and the weather cooperates, the new William Wirt building should open in August 2020.
“There’s always the risk of delays in funding, right, not getting enough (funding). Because we need a minimum amount to start construction and once you start, you don’t want to stop,” Chaisson said. “We need to have a verification that there is enough money and that we will have enough to keep going and finish the job.”
The new building will be built in the field area of the current middle school over the course of two years and students will not be moved out of the current building during the process.
Some at the meeting expressed concern about construction noise and debris during school hours and the effect it would have on students, but both Chaisson and Rawat said the process is one the school system has used before without much interruption to instruction.
Examples of that exact process were the replacement of Northwestern High School and the combined campus project at Accokeek Academy.
In addition, Chaisson said, the school system has few other options.
“This is because we really have nowhere to send these students,” she said. “There is not another building to send them to. We know that the northern part of the county is at capacity and in many cases over-utilized.”
The new building will increase the school’s capacity from 850 to 1,200 students to address over crowding in the area. At the same time, one of the two new middle schools will be built in the Glenridge area to pull out some of the school’s population.