The pressure to build new schools in Prince George's County was increasing quickly, but the dollars were not, when County Executive Wayne K. Curry offered a unique solution.
He couldn't raise property taxes because of a voter-imposed cap. And state funds go only so far in a county that needs to build 13 to 26 new schools in the next six years. But Curry had noticed that school buildings were used only during the day, while community centers were mostly occupied at night.
"That gnawed on my financial sense," Curry (D) recalled yesterday. "I thought, 'Why can't we build them together?' "
Yesterday at Watkins Park in Largo, Curry and other leaders dug the first shovelfuls of dirt on the site of what officials say will be the Washington region's first community park-school center.
In this case, a 750-student school, scheduled to open in August 2000, will be added to an existing community center. The two buildings will share a gymnasium, parking lot, athletic fields and several rooms.
In all, officials say the 98,803-square-foot Watkins Park project will cost the county about $1.5 million less than if the two facilities were built separately. Prince George's plans about six more school-community centers and could save up to $3 million per project, they say.
Such economies are vitally important in Prince George's, which has the state's largest school district, with 128,000 students, and is entering a new era of school construction as it phases out 26 years of busing for desegregation purposes.
"This concept allows us to meet the growing public service needs and enables us to customize services in neighborhoods where they're most needed," Curry said.
While the school will be off-limits to adults during instructional hours, students will use the community center facilities for athletics and other activities. After school, some classrooms will be used by community groups. The school board and park commission will contribute jointly to the operation and upkeep of the complex.
School officials hailed the concept--already in use elsewhere nationwide--as a way to foster parental involvement in the county's troubled school system, which ranks second to last, behind Baltimore, on state exams.
"It's really important to make the connection between people in the community and the schools, and this is literally a connection," school board member Catherine A. Smith (Cheverly) said.
The state legislature last year granted county officials the authority to build schools on property not owned by the school board. The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission will contribute money to each joint project; in the case of the Largo complex, the commission will pay about $1.5 million of the $10 million cost, officials said.
The commission, unlike the county, is not subject to restrictions that cap property taxes and that force county officials to get voter approval to raise most taxes and fees.
Curry has cited those restrictions as a major impediment to raising the money necessary to build new schools.
Some county activists question whether the park-schools model is simply a way to circumvent the property tax cap.
"They've tried every other way in the world to get around us," said Judy Robinson, a civic activist who led a successful campaign in 1996 to keep the cap. "There is never a [budget] reduction. We always keep paying and paying."
But County Council member Ronald V. Russell (D-Mitchellville) said the new park-school concept is a key step toward revitalizing the community. And Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) hailed the project as a model.
"This is an experiment in some ways, but I think we're going to see many more of them," he said. "It makes no sense that we invest in a tract of land and facility and only use them eight hours of the day."