If experience is the best teacher, the Saskatoon Public School Board should learn from others’ mistakes and not pursue the idea of a privately-owned and operated “public” school in the city, says CUPE Saskatchewan President Tom Graham.
The cash-strapped Saskatoon Public School Board announced two weeks ago it was “actively exploring” the idea of a public private partnership (P3) to build a new school in the rapidly expanding area of Willowgrove, in north-east Saskatoon.
Under this controversial P3 proposal, a private company would build, own and operate the school and rent it back to the school division on a long term lease, typically 25-35 years.
CUPE Saskatchewan President Tom Graham says based on the experience of other jurisdictions as well as indepth studies, the board should realize that P3 schools are not a viable option.
“In case after case, school divisions have learned that P3 schools tend to cost 30 to 50 per cent more than traditional financing and are fraught with problems,” he says.
He noted Nova Scotia scrapped its experiment with P3 schools in 2000 after it encountered cost overruns in excess of $35 million. Due to the multi-year lease-back agreements, the province continues to experience a myriad of problems with the P3 schools including: lack of community access to the P3 schools after hours, rising rental rates charged by the P3 developer for the use of gymnasiums and other school facilities, and substandard construction.
As former Nova Scotia Education Minister Jane Purves admitted, “there are an awful lot of loose ends and problems with the P3 process.”
A recent study by economist Hugh Mackenzie of the Alberta government’s proposal to build P3 schools found “that for every two schools financed as P3s, three could be built as public projects.” His report, Doing the math: Why P3s for Alberta schools don’t add up, details the costs, lack of transparency, loss of community control and increased financial risk that come with a P3.
At a meeting with the Saskatoon public school board earlier this week, CUPE Local 8443 President Will Bauer told the trustees: “Any form of P3 funding will only serve to diminish the capacity of the board to oversee education in the city.”
Bauer, whose local represents public school support workers in Saskatoon, urged the board to lobby the provincial government for improved funding for the new school. “How is it during this time of record government revenues, we are looking for alternatives to fund new school construction?” asked CUPE Local 8443 President Will Bauer. “It’s the government’s responsibility to fund new school construction, not private corporations,” he stated.
Given the controversial nature of P3 projects, CUPE says the board should hold broad consultations on any privatized school proposal.
Bauer and Graham say CUPE wants to work with the board to ensure the provincial government makes funding for a new public school in Willowgrove an urgent priority.