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Prince George’s County Saves Big by Bundling School Construction

A first-of-its-kind school construction project will save a Maryland school district hundreds of millions of dollars — and create exceptional learning environments.

Colin Powell K8 Academy Groundbreaking.jpg
Groundbreaking for the Colin Powell K-8 Academy, one of six schools the Prince George's County Public Schools bundled in a single public-private partnership construction project. The strategy created significant savings in construction and maintenance costs and reduced completion time by 13 years.
In Brief:
  • The public-private partnership (P3) payment mechanism is an established tool for infrastructure projects.
  • In the case of school construction, P3 offers an alternative to issuing school bonds.
  • A P3 project in Prince George’s County, Md., is the first ever to bundle a six-school build. The resulting efficiencies have greatly reduced construction time and costs for buildings with 21st century features.

  • On average, American schools are more than 40 years old, at or near the end of their serviceable life without significant upgrades. The National Center for Education Statistics says that a quarter of all public schools were built before 1950, and 45 percent between 1950 and 1968.

    The annual gap between what it would cost to keep public schools in good condition and what is available to them has been estimated to be $85 billion.

    A recent study by the Government Accountability Office found that 4 in 10 districts have outdated heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in at least half of their schools. This in itself is unacceptable as extreme heat days become common and worries about exposure to respiratory viruses persist.

    The public school district in Prince George’s County, Md. (PGCPS), is among the 20 largest in the country. The more than 200 school buildings that comprise PGCPS are 50 to 60 years old on average.

    About eight years ago, the district hired a consulting firm to assess its deferred maintenance backlog. The estimated cost of the needed upfitting that came back was daunting: $8.5 billion.

    “That’s not rebuilding every school, that’s just getting them up to standard,” says Jason Washington, associate superintendent, supporting services at PGCPS.

    The roughly $200 million a year in the district’s capital improvement program wasn’t up to a multibillion-dollar challenge. The County Council, county executives and PGCPS joined forces to take a hard look at other possibilities. They brought in a consultant to investigate development models that could enable PGCPS to move faster to meet its facility needs.

    The outcome of their work was a school construction project that was the first school of its kind in the nation.
    Large windows and solar tubes bring daylight into a classroom at Hyattsville Middle School.

    Finding Partners

    PGCPS can’t issue bonds, says Washington, and it wasn’t realistic to think the county could fund a large-scale effort. Following recommendations from the consultant, the working group settled on a public-private partnership (P3) strategy.

    A P3 is often used for large infrastructure projects such as roads or bridges, and has been used to build schools in some cases. But PGCPS decided to do something that no district had ever done before: bundle the simultaneous construction of six new school buildings into a single P3 effort.

    In November 2019, it issued a request for proposals for the design, building, financing and maintenance of five middle schools and one K-8 facility. This was to be the first phase of a new Blueprint Schools Program.

    The program took advantage of legislation enacted by the Maryland General Assembly in 2018 over a veto by then-Gov. Larry Hogan, the 21st Century School Facilities Act. It allows county boards to contract with private entities for design-construct-maintain-finance arrangements “to enhance the delivery of school construction.”

    By October 2020, PGCPS had selected a development team for the work, under the name Prince George’s County Education and Community Partners (PGCECP). As envisioned, the partnership will receive payments over 30 years for designing and building the Phase 1 schools and maintaining them throughout the contract period.

    PGCECP is led by Fengate Capital Management and Gilbane Development. Gilbane Building Company and Stantec were chosen as the design-build team, and Honeywell International for facility maintenance.

    “The big principle is that all of the risk with respect to schedule and cost is our risk, not the county’s risk, says Valerie Blinch, head of P3 execution for Fengate. “They've contracted to get the schools on a fixed-price basis and a fixed schedule.”

    This isn’t the only protection for the district. Honeywell is required to provide any capital improvements necessary to keep buildings in good working order over the 30-year term of the Phase 1 contract. They must also ensure the buildings meet specified standards when they are turned over to PGCPS after it has made its last payment.
    A media lab at Kenmoor Middle School.

    Different Strategy, Different Outcomes

    The Blueprint Schools program is off to a promising start. Washington says it would have taken the district about 16 years to get six new schools through its previous process.

    The development team for Phase 1 was chosen in October 2020, broke ground in June 2021, and delivered five new schools in July 2023. They opened their doors to 6,000 students at the beginning of the 2023 school year. The sixth will be delivered this fall, and bring the total number of students in new buildings to close to 8,000.

    PGCPS estimates that it saved nearly $400 million in construction costs. Bundling the schools created numerous efficiencies, overlapping construction processes and creating one timeline, not six, for design and construction. Having the design and building processes under a single team also saved time (and thus money).
    Jason Washington: "Surrounding school districts were taking a 'wait and see' approach to see if we crashed and burned or, or if we were successful."

    Maintaining existing schools over a 16-year period while new ones were being built could have cost the district as much as $250 million, Washington says. It’s estimated that turning building maintenance over to Honeywell will save PGCPS an estimated $170 million over 30 years.

    Those savings can help the district with its payments, responsibility for which is shared by the district and the county.

    Although the district’s arrangement with PGCECP might be compared to a mortgage, it’s not the same thing, says John Keegan, senior vice president for Gilbane Development Company. PGCPS owns the schools, the land and any improvements, as it would in a traditional capital improvement program.

    The district makes what are called “availability payments” over the 30-year term of the agreement. “Our team is obligated to ensure that the six schools meet prescribed availability standards for uptime, meaning there aren't classrooms that are offline because the lights don't work, or restrooms that are offline because the sinks don't work,” says Keegan. Provided the standards are met, the district pays.

    Phase 1 was expected to create more than 4,000 jobs during design and construction. PGCECP was required to allocate at least 30 percent of the contract dollars to local and minority-owned businesses. It managed to achieve 35 percent, says Keegan.

    Each member of PGCECP was required to provide internship opportunities, including to PGCPS career and technical education students. Gilbane Building also implemented a mentoring program for smaller contractors to ensure they gained experience that would serve them beyond their involvement in the Phase 1 project.

    PGCPS set ambitious sustainability goals for the new buildings, says Keegan. “In a project of this size and complexity, those goals are achieved through innovative design approaches and mechanical and electrical systems — for the smaller contractors to be a part of putting that kind of work challenges and stretches them.”
    Hyattsville_Collab Area.jpg
    A collaborative learning space at Hayattsville Middle School.

    What About the Buildings?

    Cost savings weren’t at the expense of features that might be expected in a “21st century school.” The new schools meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver green building standards. Solar arrays are coming to school roofs. These features will become a part of the learning environment, Keegan says.

    Each new school has a video production studio and a STEAM lab. “There are interactive boards in every classroom and voice projection to reach students that have listening impairments,” says Washington. “There are open concept media centers and pullout spaces throughout the schools that allow for different types of teaching modalities.”

    Other features include reading nooks and outdoor learning spaces. Energy-monitoring dashboards allow students to see real-time data on electricity, water and natural gas consumption. Tubular skylights and other daylighting features spread daylight deep into classrooms. Walls and windows are designed to reduce ambient noise. Wireless connectivity extends throughout the schools and to outdoor learning spaces.

    Washington is convinced that these new facilities would be exceptional in any district, anywhere in the country. Subsequent phases of the Blueprint Schools program will follow the model that made them possible and in characteristic "first to be second" fashion, other districts are expressing interest in its P3 strategy.

    Giving students a chance to reach their potential is the real value proposition, Washington says, and what the district’s students and the community deserve.

    “We’re going to give you everything you can imagine to go after your dreams.”
    Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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