Boondoggle in Prince George's; The cost of abandoning a school offices plan.
Post, 25 May 2009 (Editorial).
COMING UP WITH enough money to properly fund education has long been a struggle in Prince George's County, where a tax cap limits revenue. So it's all the more maddening that $11 million was frittered away on a planned school headquarters. This colossal waste of public money should cause school officials and state lawmakers -- all of whom are to blame -- to undertake some serious soul searching.
The Board of Education voted last week to back out of a $36 million lease-purchase agreement for the Washington Plaza office complex in Upper Marlboro. Reneging on the deal will incur a penalty of $4.8 million, bringing the system's total cost in rent and other expenses to $11 million with, as one board member observed, "nothing to show" for it.
The board had no choice: The Maryland General Assembly, prodded by local senators and delegates, passed legislation that would have withheld millions of dollars in state education aid if the board proceeded with the project. Lawmakers argued that the money couldn't be justified because of the hard economic times that were causing layoffs of county workers and other cutbacks.
Perhaps they have a point about the wisdom of undertaking the project at this time, but it's hard to see what they accomplished by their second-guessing. Considering that $11 million is a little less than one-third of the estimated total cost, wouldn't it have been smarter to proceed with the project? No one disputes that the current administrative offices are in poor condition or that there are merit and cost savings in consolidating facilities spread across the county. Will officials look back in 10 years and wish they had acted differently? It's interesting to note that plans by Frederick school officials for a similar project to house administrative offices did not cause the legislature to intervene.
No doubt, though, that's due in part to the way Frederick officials built public support for their project. The Prince George's board, in contrast, ignored advice from then-superintendent John E. Deasy for further study, thumbed its nose at objections from county officials and made no effort to engage the public in its decision. That there was no support for this decision is the board's fault. Too bad county schoolchildren have to pay the price.
(Posted 25 May 2009)