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Timing of School Headquarters Move In Pr. George's Is Criticized by Some

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 26, 2008

The Prince George's County Council agreed last week to let the school system buy a headquarters for $36 million, drawing criticism from some residents who believe new offices are unnecessary in a year when the council passed a tax increase to cope with the economic downturn.

The funding, which was quietly put into the school system's capital budget, will allow administrators to move their headquarters from a cramped former school that has served as the system's base for more than 20 years. Proponents said the site will be paid for over time and the county will save money in the long run by consolidating scattered offices.

County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) did not endorse the item, however, and his spokesman said Friday that the financial climate is not right for the long-sought office move.

"These are very tight financial times," Johnson spokesman John Erzen said. "Now maybe just isn't the best time for it."

Council Chairman Samuel H. Dean (D-Mitchellville) described the funding included by the council as a "placeholder" that can be used by the Board of Education if it chooses. He said including the funds would allow the school system to move from its outdated headquarters during the next several years and cease rent payments on other far-flung offices.

"The issue becomes what is more cost effective -- to bring everyone together or to continue to pay rent in several different locations," Dean said. "It's a decision the board has to make."

School administrators have been trying for years to move out of their offices, in the Sasscer Administration Building in Upper Marlboro, formerly a middle school and high school.

The hulking office's exterior is stained by long green mildew streaks, and the cracked parking lot has semi-permanent puddles of rainwater. Inside, the building has problems with heating and air conditioning, leaks and mice. Superintendent John E. Deasy said he's found cockroaches in his office.

"We're one of the nation's largest school systems, and we conduct business in some of the most compromised physical" conditions, Deasy said. "It does not reflect what the system is about at all."

According to Deasy, the system will spend up to $30 million over an unspecified number of years on a lease-purchase agreement for two office buildings on about 12 acres at Washington Plaza, an office park not far from the Beltway and Andrews Air Force Base. Until recently, space in the buildings was rented by the U.S. Census Bureau.

An additional $6 million will be spent over time for fees, renovations and moving costs, he said. The school system has budgeted $3.4 million to pay for the building for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

The school board endorsed the amendment to its capital improvement program after no debate, packaged with other items, at its April 10 meeting. The next day, Deasy and Board Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs wrote to Johnson and Dean requesting the funding. The council agreed to the change last week when it adopted the county's operating and capital budgets.

Deasy said Sasscer could be returned to use as a school, but it would require renovations first. "Kids couldn't be in it," he said.

Land records indicate Washington Plaza last changed hands in 2006, when an entity called Washington Plaza LLC bought the property for $22.5 million. Garth E. Beall, a lawyer listed as the resident agent for Washington Plaza LLC, did not return a call for comment.

The property was assessed in January at $22.3 million.

School board member Rosalind A. Johnson (District 1) said she believes the schools will negotiate a good price for the buildings, noting that the system had been looking at other, more expensive buildings to serve the same purpose.

But the deal has attracted some skeptics.

Former lieutenant governor Michael S. Steele (R), who in the mid-1990s helped lead a successful effort to amend the county charter to require tax increases to be sent to referendum for voter approval, asked if there might be a way to "stretch or delay" the item to better times.

He said the school system's offices might need updating but asked, "Is the $36 million necessary to spend at this time, given the fact that people will have to pay more out of their pockets when they can't afford to do it?"

Johnson and the council argued that they could raise the county's income and recordation taxes without referendum because the taxes were established by state law, which gives local governments guidelines for raising rates.

School board member Rosalind Johnson said she anticipated criticism of the deal in a financially tight climate.

"I know some will probably say, 'Well, you've got budget cuts and you're moving.' That needs to be dispelled immediately," Johnson said. "It is not about the Board of Education and the superintendent wanting to go fancy while we have difficult economic times. That couldn't be farther from the truth."

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