While the cancellation of Nova Scotias failed P3 school scheme contained the consequences of the disastrous plan, the existing P3 schools are still creating community headaches. A major increase in after-hours rental fees at Halifax-area P3 schools has many groups up in arms, worried they cant afford the space for recreation and culture.
In September 2001, community groups learned P3 school owner Scotia Learning Centres had raised most of its rental rates for gymnasiums and other facilities such as audiovisual rooms. In some cases, gym rental fees went from $20 to $50 an hour.
Scotia Learning Centres (SLC) own 11 Halifax-area schools, nine in Halifaxs Regional School Board and two in the Acadian board of education.
The Bedford minor basketball associations hourly fees more than doubled from $20 an hour to $50 an hour in 2001. Association officials said the new fees were a shock, and wondered where they would find the extra $30,000 to fund gym space for practices and games.
Rates at another area P3 school went from $40 an hour to $75, according to the Fall River basketball association.
The P3 school rental increases have Recreation Nova Scotia very concerned. In November 2001, the group wrote to the provincial government, warning that [a]ccessibility to affordable recreation options will be greatly reduced as groups hike their program fees to offset rising facility costs, exacerbating an already bad situation for low income families.
Recreation Nova Scotia president Rick Gilbert noted that 72 per cent of children and youth living in families earning less than $20,000 do not participate in sport and recreation because they cannot afford the costs. He said limiting access to essential community facilities will hurt the health of Nova Scotia children. The group is calling on the provincial government to step in and ensure access.
Some worry the P3 contract leaves the public with little control over further fee hikes. NDP education critic Kevin Deveaux raised the issue in the legislature, tabling what he called a poorly worded and vague contract between the province and SLC.
Scotia Learning Centres uses their web site to promote school facility rentals, saying [o]ur Learning Centres are occupied daily by the school boards, however,
SLC has the ability to rent these facilities to other users when not being used by the schools.
Halifax Regional School Board is reviewing the fees it charges, but has pledged not to raise its fees before September 2002.
Reacting to news of the P3 school fee hikes, the chair of an area scouts group urged the school board not to follow suit in the 135 schools it owns and controls.
We cannot absorb any more increases, Brian Johnson told the board. Johnson, chair of the Beaver Bank scouts group said [t]he time wasted on fund-raising, just to be able to run the program, takes away from the program itself. He also warned the board that fee hikes would hit low-income children, already marginalized, and most in need of the program. The scout group currently pays the boards $5 an hour weeknight rate for youth organizations.
Fee fights also broke out early in 2000, when the Home and School Association at the Madeline Symonds Middle School told the Halifax regional school board they faced one uphill battle after another to make our school accessible to the community. After complaints SLC was charging more than school board rates, the corporation deferred the dispute by bringing its rates back down to board rates until September of the following year. Now, several fee disputes between SLC and the province will be settled by arbitration.
Halifax businessman George Armoyan, a managing partner of SLC, has been embroiled in another P3 fee controversy thats now before the courts. Armoyan is suing Halifaxs daily papers for libel over stories about fundraising in the SLC schools. The stories alleged SLC was seeking a 35 per cent cut of any food sales.
In another Halifax-area P3 problem, the Ridgecliffe Middle Schools athletic field sat uncompleted and unusable after the school opened. Last April, NDP MLA Bill Estabrooks raised the issue with Education Minister Jane Purves, saying the field isnt usable, in fact, because it wasnt properly made in the first place, and that shoddy work is keeping kids off their school field. Among the problems was an abandoned refrigerator dumped in the field. Purves replied there are an awful lot of loose ends and problems with the P3 process, and promised to look into it.
In a good-news postscript, Halifaxs next school will be a public project. The replacement for Halifax West High School opens in January 2003. The school is the first publicly-financed and owned facility to be built since the government cancelled P3 schools in 2000. Several others have since been announced.