By EMILY STRAB AND KRISSI HUMBARD — On the evening of June 3, Hyattsville City Council held a public hearing about the future site of Hyattsville Middle School (HMS). The city’s Educational Facilities Task Force (EFTF) presented their research and findings. The meeting was attended by more than 30 residents, 10 of whom voiced their concerns during the public comment period.
Mayor Candace Hollingsworth announced, “There is not a decision to be made by council this evening, but the purpose of this meeting was to kick-start our community and public engagement process, as we are aware there is the potential for a decision at some point in the near future.”
Addressing the perceived haste of the project, City Administrator Tracy Douglas said, “This process was greatly accelerated due to the possibility to get the P3 [public-private partnership] dollars or alternate construction financing, and their [Prince George’s County Public School (PGCPS)’s] intent is to get a request for proposal on the street sometime in late July or early August to identify contractors who are interested in partnering with cities to build schools.”
During the EFTF presentation, task force chair Dan Broder underscored the pressing need for new facilities, citing the “appalling and shameful” conditions at HMS, including overcrowding, mold, insufficient ventilation and unsatisfactory restroom conditions. He also referenced reports of teachers getting sick. Broder outlined two possible scenarios for redeveloping the current HMS site and a scenario for constructing a new middle school on a county-owned parcel of green space in Magruder Park.
The EFTF enumerated pros and cons for each of 3 possibilities:
- The new building/renovation takes place on the current site of HMS while students still occupy the site.
- The renovation takes place on the current HMS site while students are transferred to a “swing space” during the year(s) construction is taking place.
- A new building is constructed in Magruder Park, leaving the current site potentially available for the Hyattsville Elementary School update.
Keeping HMS at its current location allows the park to remain intact and relies on existing utilities, but offers challenges in completing construction while students are on site or in a swing site, which could disrupt their learning environment. The current location could lend itself to building up, which is costly, but has little potential for future growth by building out. A swing site for the students to attend has not been chosen yet, but the county is considering other possibilities, according to Broder.
Building a new HMS on Magruder parkland may allow for more green space around the building and space to build out in the future The site is also more centrally located for students coming from Mount Rainier, but it suffers from many logistical challenges. New utilities and access roads would have to be constructed to service a building there, especially if the county opts to use parcel 43, which lies on the southwest corner of the park by the baseball field on 38th Avenue, as EFTF member John Imahori mentioned during the hearing. The site would also require substantial grading to raise it out of the floodplain, a costly endeavor that has potentially negative consequences on stormwater management in the park.
Capital Improvement Program Officer Elizabeth Chaisson clarified PGCPS’s site requirements and processes for council, saying that outside of the Beltway, middle schools generally are situated on 20 acres, but that because HMS’s location is more urban than suburban, it requires a different approach. At the May 6 presentation, PGCPS directed the EFTF to reduce by half their proposal of four possible sites, due to their disinterest in encumbered properties and desire to pursue only county-owned locations. Chaisson also mentioned that the county would have engineers complete test-fit studies at both sites to assess how the properties would accommodate roads, utilities and all amenities.
During public comment, residents unanimously agreed on the need for improved school conditions but differed on where they think the school should be. Residents also voiced concerns related to possible locations for the school, including the permanent loss of wildlife habitat and green space if the school were to be built on parkland, issues about situating a school on a floodplain, and how building on HMS’s current site wouldn’t allow for future growth.
District 3 School Board Member Pamela Boozer-Strother reiterated the importance of community feedback on the process and how utilizing a public-private partnership will allow HMS to be updated, despite the $8 billion backlog in school facility updates that the county is currently facing. HMS is currently in Phase 1 of the PGCPS facilities master plan, meaning that its renovation is slated to start in 2020, whereas Hyattsville Elementary’s renovation is scheduled to start in 2023. On June 6, the school board passed the amendment to the master plan that keeps HMS in Phase 1, thus allowing the county to line up alternative financing for construction and put out a request for proposal to private developers this summer, which may lead to a decision on the school reconstruction as early as this fall.
Justine Christianson, HMS PTSO president, spoke about the conditions at the school and gave perhaps the most troubling comment, sharing that on May 31 a heating vent at the school caught fire. While the fire was quickly put out, and no one was hurt, it was discovered that the school has inoperable sprinklers and fire alarms, which put the whole school on fire watch.
“I would just ask that everyone keep in mind that we really don’t have a good option,” said Christianson, adding, “ I would just ask that everybody use this as an opportunity to re-envision our public lands, to re-envision what our community schools are going to look like. … Losing the green space is forever, and, although having to use swing space for middle school students is temporary, for them, they only are going to be in sixth, seventh and eighth grade once; that is their education for middle school, so for them, it’s not temporary.”
Principal Thornton Boone spoke about the need for a new facility, saying, “Our students here at Hyattsville Middle School and our teachers, they really need … a new building because our teachers are struggling and our students are struggling. This is a beautiful city, this is a growing city, a city of diversity, and I would like our kids to have pride when they come into the building, and a beautiful building where they can learn and grow as students.”
Residents who wish to voice their opinions about the future of HMS can do so on the city’s SpeakUpHVL.com website or contact their councilmembers.