With billions of dollars backlogged in school maintenance and construction costs, Prince George’s County leaders are considering using private dollars to build schools — a public-private partnership that would be the first of its kind in the nation.
The Prince George's County Public School system has an $8.5 billion backlog in construction, most of its buildings are 45 to 55 years old and it takes seven years to build one school with traditional public funds.
The school district moved students out of Forest Heights Elementary School last year when it was discovered the building's foundation was crumbling.
“We are going to do whatever is necessary to make sure that Black and brown children are in modern schools just like wealthy kids are in modern schools,” said Prince George’s County School Board Chair Alvin Thornton, Ph.D.
The proposed solution is a public-private partnership to build six new middle schools in three-and-a-half years. The school system would pay no money upfront but would enter a long-term payment agreement.
“I want to make sure that no one is profiting off our children,” school board member Raaheela Ahmed said.
She's concerned about the public-private partnership deal that could cost the system almost $1 billion over the next 30 years.
“Just understanding the gravity of that level of partnership is another big piece of this process for me,” she said.
“We've seen this all over the country in all sectors — water and prisons and just everything — and it all just sounds so good because people don't look at the details,” said Donald Cohen, executive director of the watchdog group In the Public Interest.
When private money builds public structures, interest rates are higher and projects are harder to control, Cohen said.
“The contract will have protections for private investors, and those protections will limit the ability of the school district, of the school, of the principal of the teacher,” Cohen said.
Thornton says if the state and county don't have the money for new schools, the school system will have to find a way.
“I'm not a big P3 man,” Cohen said. “I never was. I believe schools ought to be built by the government, by the legislature, but when that does not happen, I will not allow my babies to go old schools,” Thornton said.
Under the agreement, the private partner would own and maintain the school building until the end of the contract.
A school spokesperson said it is a tool in the toolbox but they will also be building 20 new schools by the traditional method over the next several years. The school system is still taking bids from firms to determine who is going to be their private partner. It expects to have that finalized by winter, and the public will have a chance to weigh in before the school board has its final vote.