P3s an “adrenaline boost” to development, says Prince George’s

As the first six US P3 schools open their doors to students, Prince George’s County’s Jason Washington shares what the model has meant for the trailblazing community - and how to unlock its power

Credit: Gilbane

“The public-private partnership model is an opportunity to break the status quo,” says Jason Washigton , associate superintendent for supporting services at Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS), as he looks forward to welcoming students to the new schools delivered by the Fengate-Gilbane P3 team.

That status quo is a story common across the United States: dilapidated schools holding back the next generation of students, particularly those in areas historically suffering from deprivation. For Prince George’s, it was an $8.5bn facilities budget deficit.

Using the P3 model, the new schools are being delivered 16 years faster than traditional models would have allowed, and will also save more than $236m in deferred maintenance costs. Or as Washington puts it: “The P3 was an adrenaline boost to Prince George’s County Public Schools.”

However, the benefits go far beyond statistics and savings.

“These new school facilities are leveling the playing field in our underserved, majority Black county by providing the 21st century resources our kids need to be successful,” Washington says. “These schools are a manifestation and explicit expression of what we tell our students: that we believe in them and know they can change the world.”

There will be many school boards out there eyeing the same opportunity, but going down the route of a P3 is one that must be taken thoughtfully.

To those authorities weighing the option, Washington is clear: “You have to start with the end in mind: why are you doing it? You have to keep in mind where you’re trying to go, as it can’t be a vanity project. Ultimately, it’s important to understand your community’s wants and needs.”

Getting community buy-in is critical to a successful P3, especially those dealing in sensitive assets such as social infrastructure. Even more so when the project is pioneering a new sector such as this one is.

“By undertaking this project, we had to change the mindset of how things have always been done. It took a lot of education and outreach to the community,” he says, adding that the authority put effort into “broadening our definition of ‘community’ as a school system”.

Part of these efforts revolved around making sure that the community was the beneficiary in more than just the facilities - over $68m-worth of contracts went to minority business enterprises (MBEs) from within the county, and much more to other local firms.

Moves such as this will no doubt help to burst the hesitation that sometimes exists within communities in inviting what can be perceived as big business into their cherished assets.

“It was a learning experience for us, but with continued open and transparent communication, the community is thrilled to be opening these new buildings for the school year,” Washington continues. “It’s helped re-establish our schools as the community anchors they truly are.”

The role that infrastructure can play as that anchor is an important one, but is often not stressed enough by the industry. Whether it’s the transport links that drive regeneration or a school system like this, the rejuvenation of infrastructure can help transform a community - but, interestingly at Prince George’s, it’s happening on more, deeper levels.

As, the county’s next schools bundle progresses - with three teams already shortlisted - the benefits to the community are set to be manifested in direct equity in the project, with the future winning team to develop a community equity investment program, which will see the local population take a stake of up to 10% in the project.

“Phase Two of the program doubles down on our commitment to both students and communities by offering Prince George’s County residents and businesses the opportunity to build community wealth through direct investment in the program,” says Washington. “This approach will support the county’s economic development goal of building community wealth.”

Schools boards across the US will no doubt be observing the successful delivery of this first bundle - but authorities of all kinds will be watching the second. To say Prince George’s is blazing a trail is to sell it short, it's innovativing in every direction.