Division hopes province dumps P3 deal in school builds

The Progressive Conservatives plan to award contracts to a single developer for the construction and maintenance of new schools.

Winnipeg trustees in a growing division that has been promised two of the nine new schools the province wants to build through a public-private partnership are urging officials to stick to the status quo.

Maria Santos of the Seven Oaks School Division told the Free Press she and her board colleagues are hopeful the province will “rethink” its latest building blueprint.

Last month, the Progressive Conservatives announced their intention to award a series of school contracts to a single developer who will be tasked with construction and subsequent maintenance across the sites.

The plan involving what’s known as a P3 approach, a deal that typically has governments lease public infrastructure from a private company rather than finance and own assets, has yielded mixed reviews.

Skeptics have been quick to question the government’s U-turn, which it claims will speed up construction, given officials ruled out using the model in the education sector five years ago.

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“We have been well served by the traditional design/bid/build approach,” Santos wrote in a letter this week to Government Services Minister James Teitsma.

“By insisting that all nine schools are awarded to a single bidder, the P3 process you announced practically assures that Manitoba contractors are squeezed out by large national firms. It increases the prospect of delay and standardizes design at the expense of local needs,” the school board chairwoman added.

Two kindergarten to Grade 8 schools and child-care facilities have been earmarked for Seven Oaks.

Pembina Trails, River East Transcona, Seine River, Brandon, Beautiful Plains, and the francophone division have been named as other recipients of the newly-announced P3 schools. All of the buildings are anticipated to open by September 2027.

Teitsma said his priority is to ensure the quality of schools constructed during the Tories’ tenure so far will “be matched or exceeded” by P3 schools.

“The way that they’ll be operated, the way that they’ll be maintained should be very similar; (divisions) shouldn’t really notice a difference,” he said, when reached by phone Wednesday.

People for Public Education organizers want the province to explain the motivation to suddenly change its methods.

(When pressed on the U-turn, Teitsma said he does not have much context on why the province ruled out P3s in 2018, a decision made in response to a KPMG report recommending against it.)

“It makes us extremely nervous, because it gives one developer a lot of power,” said Shannon Moore, speaking on behalf of the local advocacy group, made up of educators, academics and members of the public.

Moore, who trains teacher candidates at the University of Manitoba, warned contracts could allow developers rather than divisions to earn revenue from leasing properties after school hours and a one-size-fits all approach risks omitting local educator and pedagogical needs in the design process.

Moore and Santos noted the subject of P3s has sparked controversy elsewhere due to project inefficiencies across Canada, including Nova Scotia.

The eastern province’s decision to lease schools through a P3 deal instead of building them in the 1990s is estimated to have cost taxpayers upwards of $50 million.

Critics are demonizing the “private” element of the latest plan, in turn ignoring the reality contractors have long been involved with building and upgrading schools, Teitsma said.

As for concerns about P3s being costly, the minister suggested there are countless unfortunate examples of publicly-tendered projects — including Keeyask generating station in northern Manitoba — resulting in costlier price tags than recipients initially promised.

The successful bidder’s fees will be set in advance, the minister said, noting there’s an incentive to use high-quality materials to limit future upkeep.

This story was originally published in The Free PressIt is republished under a Creative Commons license as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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