Doubts About Deal In Prince George's

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009

As the Prince George's County school board considers closing a dozen schools and eliminating more than 1,000 jobs, its decision last summer to spend $36 million for a new headquarters faces mounting criticism while the costs of the project grow and the payoff remains uncertain.

The school system has spent nearly $2 million to rent and renovate a pair of office buildings outside the Capital Beltway along the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor. But officials have not announced a timetable for moving out of the aging, decrepit Sasscer Administration Building on School Lane in Upper Marlboro and into Washington Plaza on Presidential Parkway.

Meanwhile, the board is expected to vote Thursday on a $1.6 billion budget for the next fiscal year that would squeeze programs in the 128,000-student school system and possibly raise class size and force employee furloughs. Those cuts have made the headquarters move an easy target.

At a meeting in Glenarden this week, school officials faced parents upset about the school closure plan. Board Vice Chairman Ron Watson (At Large) fielded a question about the headquarters move.

"The plan for [office] consolidation has nothing to do with the budget," Watson said. "That was a long-range plan. There's been a lot of misinformation." As he outlined the case for a move -- that costs would be paid over a long term and that schools would save money and gain a better central office -- parents snorted and grumbled.

"We continue to revisit this decision," he said. "Even if the school system were somehow able to back out of this contract, it doesn't even come close to the $76 million we are short in this year's budget."

Headquarters moves are often sensitive. The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors rejected a $110 million proposal for a school office consolidation in September, but school officials returned this month with a $95 million plan they say will save money in the long run.

The Prince George's experience shows that political and financial complications can linger or multiply even after a contract is signed.

The school board's 6 to 4 vote June 26, approving a 10-year lease of Washington Plaza with an option to purchase, exposed divisions at the start. John E. Deasy, then superintendent, sought to delay action but was rebuffed. Opponents on the board said the project would force program cuts; supporters said it would save money and improve services for Maryland's second-largest school system.

The 200,000-square-foot Washington Plaza has as much space as the Sasscer building and several others combined, and the proposed consolidation is meant to help parents and teachers to take care of all their needs in a single visit. A design schematic calls for a "clean, fresh, no-frills look," with executive offices that would appear "contemporary . . . without looking either fancy or cheap."

Expenses were supposed to be minimal: $30 million for the two buildings and $6 million for renovations and closing costs. Deasy told the board that the consolidation of several offices around the county would save about $40,000 a year.

But the estimates started to crumble under questions from some board members, according to internal documents The Washington Post obtained through the Maryland Public Information Act and from sources.

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