As predicted, Virginia’s so-called public-private education
partnerships are causing right-to-know tensions -- not just
with parents but with school boards, city councils and boards of
supervisors as well.
The secret nature of the so-called PPEA process almost guarantees
such conflicts, with elected governing bodies on the outside looking
in -- or, in some cases, not looking in.
Here’s what can happen:
A school board gets an unsolicited proposal for a new school. Sometimes,
it will get more than one. Strings are attached; traditional public
bidding is bypassed.
Cost estimates and construction concepts can’t be talked about
publicly (these are business deals, after all -- and a private
business is not about to negotiate away a favorable bargaining position).
In theory, the 2002 Public-Private Educational Facilities and Infrastructure
Act makes all kinds of sense. Innovation is encouraged, bureaucratic
red tape can be trimmed, funding options may be broadened (put the
school in an open space, rent the space next door to a retirement
home: bingo, there’s a revenue source to pay off construction
bonds with no tax increase).
Too good to be true? Maybe, maybe not. Too improbable to ever happen
exactly that way? Maybe, maybe not.
What is known is that turf battles inevitably break out, if only
because appointed or elected school boards have no taxing powers.
Councils and boards of supervisors may or may not be allowed to
join in the closed sessions to discuss a private partner’s
proposal; parents and other citizens most definitely will not be
In Clarke County, town, county and school board officials had to
promise not to reveal details before they were allowed to see proposals
The school board then voted to move forward with a proposed partnership -- without
asking its liaison with the board of supervisors to join in a closed-door
Miffed, the supervisors then voted to hire their own consultant
to check the school board’s proposal -- prompting the school
board to complain that the search for a consultant had been done
behind its back.
Little wonder some members of the board of supervisors flatly expressed
disdain for the PPEA process. Supervisor David Weiss said he was
worried that only "a select group of people" knew what
was going on.
Two groups that are in cahoots can come up with terms that benefit
them, Weiss complained at a session with Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg.
But unless there is a compelling need for people to know, May said,
these business deals can be kept private.
In Stafford County, PPEA let the school board forge a partnership
with an out-of-state company, without telling the public that a
local company -- one with a history of building schools in Stafford -- had
offered to do the job for $12 million less.
The partnership was supposed to net the county $10 million in development
deals, bring a library and businesses to the area, and trim costs
and time from three school-building projects.
But, as The Free Lance-Star reported, not much had gone as planned:
The schools are costing millions more than expected, $10 million
in potential revenue has evaporated, a library and other amenities
will not be built, and the private partner was dropped from one
construction project (after $800,000 got spent on a design that
might never be used).
Elected officials had hoped a partnership would be a model for
other counties to emulate. It was the first of its kind in Virginia. "Sometimes,
you have to take a risk and see if there’s a better way," said
Jim Campbell, executive director of the Virginia Association of
In Bedford County, school officials decided to go along with two
contractors who asked members not to divulge costs for building
two schools until contracts got signed. Understandably, that frustrated
the board of supervisors, which holds the purse strings for education
spending. Chairman Bobby Pollard told The Roanoke Times that residents
have "got to know what they’re paying for."
In an editorial, the Times said, "By agreeing to shield the
costs from taxpayers until the school board signs a contract, Bedford
officials are putting the interests of private firms above public
scrutiny. The public deserves greater accountability. "
The situation, said the Times, "illustrates a broader concern
about what and when the public is entitled to learn about proposals
negotiated under public-private partnerships. Private firms can
ask governing bodies with which they are partnering for extensive
privacy. That doesn’t mean, however, that the localities should
agree to it. The public, which picks up the tab, should not be brought
into the process as an afterthought. "
The editorial concluded: "With the growing prevalence of public-private
partnerships, state leaders should revisit (PPEA) legislation and
clarify it to improve public access to information regarding projects
being built for Virginians ’ benefit, and with their tax support."
-- Frosty Landon