Matt McLean | CUPE Research

This past spring, CUPE learned that the Pallister Progressive Conservative (PC) government was abandoning a controversial plan to build four new schools in Manitoba – three in Winnipeg and one in Brandon – using a public-private partnership (P3) model.

Under the proposed P3 model, the schools would have been built, financed, owned and maintained by private-for-profit companies. The school division would have become a long-term tenant in the school, and after several decades the division would have had the option to purchase the school outright.

P3 schools across Canada are plagued by waste, secrecy and scandal. In Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Alberta, P3 schools have been found to cost millions more than traditional models of school construction and ownership. P3 schools in Saskatchewan are currently shrouded in mystery and questionable assumptions, and will also ultimately prove more expensive.

In addition to cost concerns, the nature of private-ownership of buildings creates problems for the broader community. Schools have traditionally been used on evenings and weekends for everything from Scouts and Guides to community basketball leagues and community meetings. Private owners, whose only responsibility is delivering profit to their shareholders, do not make their property available to the community in the same way that school divisions do. P3 schools cease to be a community space.

For all of these reasons, CUPE in Manitoba undertook a campaign to “raise red flags” on P3 schools in that province. The heart of the campaign was targeted at Brandon, a city of approximately 50,000 people, one school division, and two seats in the Manitoba Legislature. Both seats are “swing seats” held currently by Progressive Conservative MLA’s.

CUPE 737, representing education support staff at the Brandon School Division (BSD), took on the campaign in full force. The local dropped off thousands of pamphlets at people’s homes, hosted a public town hall with the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives-Manitoba, and made multiple presentations to the BSD Board of Trustees using research compiled by CUPE researchers across the country. CUPE made strategic use of local advertising to get the message out to the public.

It worked. Despite a government election commitment to seek out P3s for Manitoba’s infrastructure, and a budget commitment to build four schools as P3s, the Brian Pallister government backed down. The government announced it had abandoned its plans to build P3 schools and admitted that the P3 plan would be more expensive than the traditional model of construction/ownership.

It gets even better. With the money the provincial government saved from abandoning the P3 model, it committed to building an entire fifth school! So instead of four privately-owned schools, Manitoba ended up with five publicly-owned schools.

That’s a victory to be proud of! The lesson learned? Campaigning pays off.