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Council seeks options for school CIP funding

WilliamWirtMSUPPER MARLBORO – Members of the Prince George’s County Council believe the county government does not have the funds to close the gap between state funding and what Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) needs when it come to capital improvements, and they’re looking for solutions to keep modernizing schools.

On Oct. 4, leadership from the PGCPS capital improvements team met with the county council Health, Education and Human Services Committee to discuss the upcoming capital improvements program (CIP) and the funding needed to update and renovate schools and build new facilities in the coming years.

Elizabeth Chaisson, a planner with the CIP office, said it would take $275 million a year in a 10-year period for the school system to catch up on the backlog of systemic projects – and this is without modernizing facilities.

“That would just bring them up to the standard that they were at when they were first built in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s,” she said.

Additional millions would be and are needed to fund modernizations of schools - that is bringing buildings into the current century with technology and classroom updates - and for building new schools. However, funding has not quite reached the levels PGCPS needs to keep to its multi-year capital improvements plan.

For the upcoming fiscal year, PGCPS is requesting $90 million just for modernization projects and more than $335 million overall for all capital projects.

The state funding pot for school capital improvement projects is small, just around $300 million a year across all the school districts in Maryland, and the county government is left trying to close the gap between what the state provides and what PGCPS needs.

“Insufficient funds results in a delay to the start of modernizations projects,” Chaisson said. “(You can) note the feasibility for the Benjamin Stoddert and Kenmore middle school projects has already been delayed by more than year.”

For the fiscal year 2019 CIP request, PGCPS anticipates asking the state for $83 million, while asking the county for nearly $255 million – funds the county is not sure it has and funds without which, PGCPS ensures, further delays will ensue.

But some on the council see a problem that is never-ending.

“We sort of talk about the same thing all the time, and you can imagine a scenario whereby 30 years from now we’re having the same conversation about not having enough money for the school construction needs we have. Though, maybe the problem by then will be even worse,” said District 9 Councilman Mel Franklin.

Franklin said the county must have a serious conversation about finding ways to increase revenue or increase the ability to take on debt. Only renovating “a couple schools a year” is not adequately addressing the problems, he said.

He went on to ask the school system if they have looked into the “lease-leaseback” approach, which he believes is a popular tool used in California.

Lease-leaseback is essentially an agreement that allows school districts to lease school system-owned property to “any person, firm or corporation for a minimum of $1 per year” without advertising for bids, as long as the entity leasing builds or provides the means to build a school on the grounds, according to California’s Coalition for Adequate School Housing.

Shawn Matlock, the new director of capital programs, said he is interested in persuing the idea of lease-leaseback projects, but said there are issues with the idea such as the legality of procuring a contractor without going through the competitive bidding process.

“The leaseback idea is something we’ve been thinking about and I think it’s something that we may need to use or may want to pursue to bridge the gap. There may be some political obstacles or legal obstacle, but that might have to be worked out through the legislature.”

While Franklin asked about possible solutions to funding gaps, others on the council wanted to know the status of projects in their districts and across the county.

Committee Chair Karen Toles and Councilwoman Deni Teveras asked about bus lot renovations and improvements. Toles asked about progress on the lots, while Teveras wanted to know if PGCPS was following recommendation from the performance audit.

“We are working with our purchasing department to send a (Request for Proposals) out to hire architect and engineering firms to work on the master planning of modernization of four transportation facilities,” said Ajay Rawat with the CIP office. “The timeline is to hire an architecture firm in the next couple months, start the design process in spring 2018 and start construction on these four projects by winter or fall of 2018.”

Toles said she may want to impose a condition that PGCPS cannot receive funding for new lots unless they hire enough bus drivers.

“That may be a condition on your end,” she said. “But it’s okay, we talked about it the other day, so you’re off the hook there.”

Taveras also wanted to know about a pod conversion at Chillum Elementary, projects delays, and the new schools planned.

While projects are moving forward, Toles also noted that she thinks the CIP office and PGCPS could do a better job at forecasting renovations and maintenance. While she admitted the school system could not predict when emergencies will happen, they can try harder to not schedule renovations just a few years before a school will be torn down or closed.

“In your presentation it talks about Suitland High School getting classrooms renovated and we know that school is being completely modernized, gutted, so why do the classrooms get done if we know for a long time we’re going to do this school,” she said. “That money could be used for HVACs.”

However Mark Fassett, PGCPS associate superintendent, noted the classroom renovations at Suitland are to turn regular classrooms into academy classrooms that need kitchens, barberry seats or other trade-specific equipment.

“If you don’t do certain renovations then who suffers? The students suffer because the academic program is there,” he said. “If we don’t do the renovation now, what do the kids do that are there now?”

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