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A BC school held up as a shining example of public private partnership doesnt make the P3 grade. What began as a P3 ended with the private sector assuming a much more conventional role designing and building the school. However, the story has a disturbing twist that highlights the growing role developers are seizing in influencing new school construction as well as the rise of “traditional” schools in the public system.

The school was announced in 1999, and was hailed by the BC government as a way of keeping debt off the books and saving money. However, what started out as a lease-back school reverted back to a more conventional arrangement before Auguston Traditional Elementary School opened its doors in September 2000 to the enclave-like development of Auguston, just outside Abbotsford.

A 2001 study of the Abbotsford P3, conducted for the conservative Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education (SAEE), tries to spin the outcome into an endorsement of future P3 schools. The report, which got “guidance for the study and feedback on drafts” from a founding director of the Canadian Council for Public-Private Partnerships, acknowledges that P3s could result in some loss of public control, role confusion, bureaucratic tie-ups and financial losses, but still presents them as a promising option.

Playing the funding card, the report sets the scene by saying a pressing need for school construction was running up against the brick wall of few public dollars to spare. According to the study, the main motivating factors in the Abbotsford project were: to construct a school less expensively, to achieve a lease which would permit the project to appear off-book (outside provincial debt statements), to demonstrate that a P3 could work well, and to accelerate real estate sales in the development.

In the end, the school was built for about $350,000 less than original estimates just over 10 per cent less than the estimated $3.3 million cost. The developer paid $500,000 toward the construction, which may have contributed to the cost reductions. But, given the findings of auditors-general in other provinces, a closer examination of the original estimate may be in order. New Brunswicks auditor general found government estimates for a P3 school had been vastly overstated in order to inflate the alleged P3 savings.

The group also fell short of their second goal. While there was an agreement in principle to enter into a convoluted arrangement where the school district could purchase the school 20 years into a 49-year lease or assume ownership after 49 years, no lease was ever signed.

According to the report, the lease was abandoned because of unresolved questions concerning insurance, maintenance, and a possible expansionSince an investor was not found and the legal fees were mounting, the Ministry decided that an outright purchase was the better option. Despite this setback, the report stresses that none of the problems were a major impediment and that the lease would likely have qualified for off-book financing.

As for the goal of a P3 poster project, the non-lease and associated problems speak for themselves. The school is publicly owned and maintained. In the end the private sector was involved only in designing and building the school a tried and true way of working with the public sector. In fact, the only discernible success seems to have been for the developer, Beautiworld.

Much like developer influence in Nova Scotia, [m]arketing potential for real estate sales was another major catalyst for the P3, according to the report. Beautiworld Development Corporation had been lobbying the school board and the provincial government to build an elementary school in their new subdivision. They upped the ante by putting $500,000 towards construction costs.

The developer told researchers the school is a major ingredient in the formula for the Auguston development. With a school in place, the development was thought to be more marketable to families, concludes the report.

But the report also acknowledges the projectionsused to justify the Auguston P3 were too optimistic. In the end, only 20 Auguston children enrolled in the school, while more than 200 came from other schools or neighbouring districts. The enrolment figures raise questions about whether the school would have been built in the same location had decisions been based on population, rather than private financing.

Added pressure for the school came from another side a group of parents pushing for a so-called traditional school that exists within the public system but operates with conservative values and policies. That dovetailed with Beautiworlds gated vision of its Auguston community, set off in the woods on Sumas Mountain and styled as a separate town.

Gated community, gated school

Auguston publicity uses the slogan My home town and declares that the past has shown us the future when it comes to shaping communities. The development is highlighted as a self-contained entity, with signs welcoming visitors to the development as if it were a separate municipality. The Auguston school figures prominently in Beautiworlds marketing promotion.

Traditional schools are a relatively new development in BC. The school model brings narrow private interests into the public system under the banner of educational choice. The schools take a back-to-basics approach to teaching, have high levels of parent involvement and an emphasis on student discipline. Research examining the traditional school approach found it is advanced by neo-conservatives and Christian conservatives who give failing grades to public schools while simultaneously promoting charter systems and voucher schemes. The study, conducted by the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, concluded traditional schools seek to insulate students from the diversity of society.

Report co-author Arlene McLaren, an associate professor at Simon Fraser Universitys Department of Sociology and Anthropology, writes that the schools have practices and policies that allow for greater cultural homogeneity and parental consensus over the type of education their children will receive, but these come at the cost of pluralism and equity that are at the heart of public education. She argues the schools practices favour upper socio-economic, and philosophically conservative families.

Public private partnership or lease-back schools have not gone away, despite the flagship failure in Abbotsford. In February 2002, BCs deputy minister of education Emery Dosdall urged school trustees to look at P3s to reduce capital costs through private financing of new school construction. Evidence from Abbotsford, as well as Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, should discourage any further P3 schools in British Columbia.