When Harford County's newest school was conceived, it was expected to cost $40 million. But when the Patterson Mill Middle/High School complex finally opens its doors this fall, the final price tag will be closer to $60 million. What happened?
School facilities take an inordinate amount of time and money to build, not just in Harford County but throughout Maryland, in part because the system relies on government processes to do what private industry can do in less time and at a fraction of the cost.
Owning and operating school buildings distracts school systems from their core mission of educating students. Public/private partnerships get school systems out of the building and real estate business by allowing them to lease space from private firms that build, manage and maintain school sites. Under this approach, school systems and building companies can each focus on what they do best, saving substantial time and money.
In Florida, for example, an elementary school was recently designed and built in just nine months under a partnership with a private company. That facility now serves 500 students.
Here in Maryland, nine months might get us into the planning stage, but even for forward-funded projects such as Patterson Mill, the entire maddening slog can take five years or more. In the meantime, the need for adequate school facilities continues to rise, as do costs for labor and materials.
Simply shaving a year or two from the process can translate into millions of dollars in savings. The private sector can deliver those savings and save money in other ways as well. That's because the private sector is free from government red tape and can be properly motivated to perform up to expectations when it assumes the responsibility for school construction in exchange for a long-term lease agreement with the school system.
Far from being an untested theory, partnerships between the public and private sectors have successfully built schools in Virginia, California and Texas and have been used for years in other countries. According to research cited by the Maryland Public Policy Institute, when school systems join with the private sector for school facilities, projects are more likely to be delivered on time and have the potential to generate cost savings of up to 25 percent to 30 percent.
Some public/private partnerships have even been created to build mixed-use facilities that provide additional benefits to the community. As MPPI suggests, imagine an elementary school designed with flexible space to accommodate a day care center for community children. Students could simply walk down the hall to day care when their school day was done. Local families would benefit from the convenience, and the rent paid by the day care provider would be money the school system could save, freeing up funds for its core educational mission. Taxpayers would benefit from not having to pay for expensive buildings while they sit idle.
Of course, any added use of school buildings would have to be compatible with a school setting, and security features must be part of any design. But the use of school libraries, computer labs and auditoriums after regular school hours and in the summer months could be carefully planned to fit with a school building's primary use and at the same time add to the quality of community life for all residents.
The need for school facilities in Maryland cannot wait. Fortunately, the General Assembly passed the School Facilities Construction Act in 2004 allowing for public/private partnerships in Maryland. Unfortunately, progress has been stalled by state regulations that do nothing to streamline the approval processes. The result is that the intent of the original legislation has been thwarted. Most Marylanders are unaware of this affront, which suits supporters of the status quo just fine. In the meantime, forecasters warn of a structural deficit in the state budget while millions of taxpayer dollars are being wasted and students are not getting the facilities they need.
This issue must be made a priority for this General Assembly session. Maybe it's time for voters to return some of those phone calls we got from the candidates during their campaigns.
Cindy Mumby, a Bel Air resident, has been a volunteer and an advocate in Harford County public schools for more than 10 years. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.