New schools in Winnipeg, Brandon could be built using public-private model

Manitoba takes next step toward public-private partnerships in building new schools

Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government is moving cautiously toward building four schools using public-private partnerships, Premier Brian Pallister announced Tuesday morning.

The province has issued a request for proposals for the construction of four schools using the funding model, which would see private companies design, build, finance and maintain the facilities. The schools would still be operated by school boards.

The announcement called for proposals to develop a business case for the public-private partnerships to build the schools, three in Winnipeg and one in Brandon.

The government estimates the four new schools built under this model will cost more than $100 million.

"We owe it to taxpayers to consider how we can deliver high-quality services more cost-effectively," Pallister said in a news release.

The new schools in four school divisions were chosen based on higher enrolment pressures in the neighbourhoods, the news release said. They would provide capacity for 2,500 students, with the ability to expand to 3,300.

The schools would be:

- A kindergarten to Grade 5 French immersion school in the Seven Oaks School Division in northwest Winnipeg with a capacity of 450 students.

-  A kindergarten to Grade 8 school in the Waterford Green subdivision, located in Winnipeg's northwest corner near The Maples, with a capacity of 600 students.

-  A kindergarten to Grade 8 school in southeast Brandon with a capacity of 450 students.

-  A high school for Pembina Trails in Waverley West with a capacity of 1,000 students.

Each of the schools will also be designed to accommodate a child-care centre with 20 infant spaces and 54 preschool spaces, as is required by a Public Schools Finance Board policy.

Pallister spoke about the announcement at a conference on public-private partnerships Tuesday morning.

Many of the more than 350 people in the audience work in construction, design, accounting and legal sectors and could play roles in the government's interest in using public-private partnerships.

Pallister said Manitoba was well behind the rest of the country on this funding model for public works, noting there have been 56 such projects in Canada since 2012, but only three here.

"We're playing catch-up," Pallister said. "We are not that innovative here.

"We have to go beyond typical taxpayer funding," Pallister told the crowd.

Pallister maintained some caution about public-private partnerships.

"They may, in some circumstances, deliver a better value at a lower price," he told the audience.

The PC government, Pallister said, has reviewed a Saskatchewan program to build 18 schools using public-private partnerships, and he pledged to use a similar delivery model.

Pallister appeared to be committing his government to using public-private partnerships to deal with a growing infrastructure deficit.

"It isn't ideological, it's a practical matter," he said.

Education and Training Minister Ian Wishart said construction of new schools for Winkler and Niverville, which are also top-priority projects because of enrolment numbers, will be pursued through the traditional procurement model of design-bid-build, which means the building is government owned and supported.

The goal is to break ground for the schools during the 2019 construction season, Wishart said in the news release.

The deadline for submissions is June 15, with the contract to begin by Aug. 1.

Opposition, CUPE call for transparency

Opposition education critic Wab Kinew (Fort Rouge) said he doesn't think public-private partnerships are bad, but he wants to know the real costs.

"I think the bottom line here is that Manitobans deserve to know whether a P3 [public-private partnership] school is going to be cheaper and as good quality as a school that is financed by the public process," the NDP MLA said. 

Other regions in the country have had issues with people getting access to school grounds or exceptionally high costs, Kinew said, so Pallister needs to commit to releasing the full report on the schools before committing.

"I am sure that the premier will release 97 per cent of this report, but I'd like to see the entire thing so that Manitobans can take a real look and compare the costs and the quality of building a P3 school compared to using the existing public process," he said. 

"In the same way the government cherry-picked from the Peachy report, it looks like they night cherry-pick from the P3 tree, too," he added, pointing to the health-care report ordered by the previous NDP government.  

The president of the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees is also calling for more transparency and accountability in the public-private partnership plan.

Pallister "isn't telling the whole story when he tried to pitch P3s to Manitobans," Kelly Moist said in a news release.

"P3s in other jurisdictions have cost more in the long run, with less accountability over taxpayers dollars," Moist said. 

She pointed to Alberta's and Nova Scotia's controversial public-private partnership schools. Nova Scotia's contracts were struck in 1999 and a 2010 audit revealed they cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. She said there were also issues with a lack of transparency and insufficient proof that the projects provided value for money.

"Premier Pallister should learn from the mistakes of Nova Scotia and Alberta and stay clear of this disastrous policy," she said.

With new legislation proposed in March which would repeal the Public-Private Partnerships Transparency and Accountability Act, Moist said there will be less pressure for transparency. 

Teachers union expects 'seat at the table'

Norm Gould, president of the Manitoba Teachers' Society, said students need new schools but he has some concerns about how public-private partnerships have worked in other areas of the country.

"We understand that there are fees charged in evenings and weekends to access these assets, or schools as we call them," he said. "Sometimes it's debilitating or it's obstructionist, or they are not even available to be accessed in the evenings and weekends."

Gould said he wants to ensure that there is community access to the schools and the students who attend them are treated the same. 

He said the premier committed to talk with the Manitoba Teachers' Society. 

"I expect a seat at the table so we can raise some of our concerns and we can address those concerns, and when crafting contracts for those P3s that they are incorporated into those contracts," Gould said.