County school board approves eight new schools, including HES
BY SHAUN CHORNOBROFF
After a week-long wait and public complaints from parents, the county school board approved by a 12-to-1 vote a preferred developer for eight new schools during a special online board meeting held Sept. 28. The schools, including a new Hyattsville Elementary School, will be constructed as part of the second phase of the Prince George’s County Blueprint Schools program.
With the board approval, Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) acquired permission to finalize contract details with the developer, overcoming a significant roadblock in the second phase of the Blueprint project. This phase of the project will reach its conclusion by July 15, 2029, according to the board action summary of the approval.
The Blueprint Schools are part of a public-private partnership (often referred to as P3) PGCPS is using as an alternative method of funding its overhaul of outdated buildings. The partnership is one of the first of its kind in the country and is touted for offering a method that reduces both construction costs and time.
PGCPS has the second-oldest school facilities in the state with over 40% of its buildings needing construction or complete renovation, according to its website.
In recent years, issues such as out-of-date facilities, sewage leaking into classrooms and overheated classrooms have been among the reported concerns for parents.
“We’ve been waiting for this building for years and years, and our kids have been suffering,” said Laura Vulanovic, president of the Hyattsville Elementary PTA, in an interview the night before the vote. Vulanovic said she once had to help disinfect her son’s kindergarten classroom due to a leak of raw sewage.
The seven other schools included in the second phase are Brandywine Area and Robert Frost PK-8 academies, as well as Margaret Brent, Templeton, James Duckworth, Fairwood Area and Springhill Lake elementary schools.
Five of the six schools in the first round of the public-private partnership, including Hyattsville Middle School, opened their doors for the 2023-24 school year. The final school is scheduled to open at the end of November.
‘It’s unfair to the staff and students’
The approval of the program on Sept. 28 came a week after the board first tried to name a preferred developer for Phase II. On Sept. 21, the board of education meeting started with a celebration of the six schools completed in Phase I of the county’s Blueprint schools program.
However, that meeting ended without approval of the developer. A motion requiring PGCPS to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Baltimore–D.C. Building Trades Council, directing the developer to negotiate a project labor agreement (PLA) for the project, caused unresolved division. A PLA sets out conditions under which the developer will hire and work with both unionized and non-unionized trades.
The MOU was not on the agenda, nor was it in BoardDocs, where necessary documents for meetings are placed in compliance with the Maryland Open Meetings Act.
Pamela Boozer-Strother, who represents Hyattsville as the District 3 member of the board, described the MOU as “not official business” and added she had not read the document, which had been emailed to board members by the union prior to the meeting. “I didn’t think that’s the way you do partnership,” she said, adding that a MOU is typically “a partnership discussion.”
The first round of schools were built using union labor without a PLA, as mentioned during the meeting and corroborated by items in BoardDocs. Additionally, the Phase II request for proposals required the selected developer to engage in “good faith” negotiations with local unions.
Multiple board members, citing concerns about wage theft lawsuits related to the Phase I Blueprint schools projects, argued the MOU adds an extra layer of protection for workers. There are two pending wage disputes, representing 13 Phase I workers and subcontractors, according to a report from PGCPS submitted on BoardDocs. More than 4,600 people were employed for the opening phase.
The meeting concluded with the board voting against the approval initially and deciding to reconvene on Sept. 28.
In the seven days between votes, the Hyattsville community went on the offensive to advocate for the eight schools to be approved.
Daniel Broder, the head of the Hyattsville Educational Facilities Task Force, urged the community to write letters to elected officials on a community listserv. Nearly 40 parents of PGCPS students, including a number of Hyattsville residents, are attributed as authors of a Maryland Matters opinion piece titled “Prince George’s kids need new buildings now.” The night before the special meeting, a contingent of Hyattsville Elementary parents traveled to High Point High School to advocate at a town hall held by PGCPS Superintendent Millard House II.
“It’s unfair to the staff and the students; it’s disappointing that folks are putting politics and special interests over the needs of the kids,” Vulanovic, president of the Hyattsville Elementary PTA, said. “It’s just very infuriating and frustrating and disheartening.”
During the public comment session preceding the vote at the Sept. 28 meeting, more than a dozen people, including two first- and one fifth-grade Hyattsville Elementary students, numerous parents and community members, all advocated for the approval of the developer and for the urgency of the next phase of the project.
In an email, Boozer-Strother lauded the continued commitment of community members who spoke at the meeting.
“Thursday night showed the best of PGCPS: Passionate parents invested in our neighborhood schools and willing to speak out to make sure we put kids first. They’re tired of games, they’re tired of politics. I’m so proud to represent the Hyattsville community,” Boozer-Strother wrote.
In the midst of parents and children, Tonya Wingfield, speaking on behalf of the Citizens for Accountability in Governance, called last-minute changes to the language of legislation “deceptive.” Updated language was posted in BoardDocs the day after the Sept. 21 vote, but by Sept. 28, multiple speakers attested to the language being altered the day before the meeting.
Once open discussion among board members started, questions about the changed terms and a lack of notice became main concerns. Board member Juanita Miller, one of four appointed board members, said during the meeting that there were three changes made on Sept. 27, with the final alteration made at 10 p.m.
“We have not seen these changes; they were mentioned today, but that is unheard of,” Miller said during the virtual meeting. “This is political jockeying and we should not continue to tolerate it.”
In addition to board criticism, the alterations also drew accusations of a violation of the Maryland Open Meetings Act.
Eventually, amendments were made to go back to the original language given to the board, and the vote passed. Included in the prevailing motion is a requirement for the developer to establish a project labor agreement, or PLA.
The vote passed nearly unanimously. Walter L. Fields (appointed), was the lone person to vote against it, and Jonathon Briggs (District 2) missed the vote. Briggs was present at the meeting, but did not say anything when his name was called.
A potential timeline
Broder said he’s been told that Hyattsville Elementary will be closed during the 2026-27 and 2027-28 school years while students are in swing space, with the school reopening in the fall of 2028.
Although the timeline is still subject to change, Broder said he is confident the timeline will be maintained considering the first phase finished on time despite operating through a pandemic.
Despite questions about labor agreements, last-minute language changes and a special meeting being needed, Phase II construction will proceed.
“I’m very pleased with the end result,” said Vulanovic. “I’m also feeling extremely frustrated that it took this much pressure from parents and from the public.”
Shaun Chornobroff is a graduate journalism student at the University of Maryland.