The Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 737 held a town hall on Monday night to shine a light on the pitfalls of public-private partnerships, or P3s, which is the model proposed by the Pallister government for Brandon’s new south end school.
More than 60 people gathered at the Riverview Curling Club to learn about how P3 projects work and some of the complications that can come along with them.
"We’re not opposed to a new school in Brandon … We’re raising red flags around the model that the province is choosing to build, to finance and to maintain the new schools," said CUPE spokesperson David Jacks.
"The premier said that P3 schools are wildly successful across the country, but even a simple Google search of P3 schools in Canada will show that that is not entirely true."
The Manitoba government announced at the beginning of May they are planning four new schools — one in Brandon and three in Winnipeg — using the P3 model. Construction of the four schools is estimated at $100 million.
At the time of the announcement, Education Minister Ian Wishart said he was optimistic that partnering with the private sector was a cost-effective way to catch up on what he described as a educational infrastructure deficit.
However, P3 schools often end up costing more than traditionally financed schools, Jacks said, adding that they can take longer to build, they can put profits ahead of the needs of students and communities, maintenance can sometimes be delayed and be more expensive and they lack transparency.
"We just want to make sure people know the whole story … We have concerns surrounding transparency and accountability of the actual cost of these new schools," Jacks said.
Lynne Fernandez, who holds the Errol Black Chair in labour issues at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Manitoba, presented for the majority of the evening, breaking down P3s step by step and referring to complications in other P3 projects — including 39 schools in Nova Scotia and others in Alberta.
"Since their inception, (P3s have) been controversial. There have been all sorts of problems with them (in Nova Scotia). There were cost overruns. There were massive private profits. There was mismanagement and problems with the construction and the management of many of those schools," Fernandez said.
"In 2014, Alberta changed its mind about using the P3 model to build 19 schools … because they did an evaluation and found they could save $14 million by using the traditional finance methods. There were also a lot of restrictions on the P3 schools that did go ahead in Alberta, and people were infuriated by the way the schools were run and the limitations that were put on the usage of the schools."
The problems mainly surround infrastructure, Fernandez said, as the school division would still be responsible for the education in P3 schools.
However, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have a trickle-down effect on the students, she added.
"Depending on the way the contract unfolds — if there’s limitations on hours, if there’s limitations on what the school can be, access that the children have, or if there’s shoddy workmanship that requires … constant maintenance, that can affect students," Fernandez said.
NDP education critic Wab Kinew also attended, criticizing the Pallister government for creating "an opportunity for the private sector to make money" on the backs of children.
"In my mind, kids are only kids once," Kinew told the audience. "Some (kids) may move on before they have an opportunity to get into that new school … some are going to be spending an extra hour on the bus for two more years because we’re worried about creating more opportunity for people to maximize a return on their investments rather than thinking about how best we can serve the kids in this neighbourhood."
The question-and-answer period at the end of the presentation was politically charged — with attendees taking jabs at the former NDP government running a deficit, some suggesting the Progressive Conservatives are setting up the next government to fail because they think they won’t get re-elected, and others accusing CUPE’s presentation of "fearmongering."
But the majority of the audience shared varying levels of concern about what baggage a P3 school might come with and how it will fit in the community.
Led by CUPE Local 737 president Jamie Rose, part of the town hall crowd moved to the Brandon School Division board meeting, where Rose presented to the board with the concerns and asked for them to be considered.
While BSD chair Kevan Sumner said he appreciates the concerns surrounding the P3 model, the board’s primary focus is getting a new school in Brandon.
"As the process moves forward, we’ll certainly do everything we can to look after the interest of Brandonites … and our staff and students, but it’s very preliminary at this point," Sumner said. "We don’t even know what model is going to be proposed. It’s too early in my mind to critique something where we don’t know what the model is."
"The government is doing its diligence in my view by doing a business case around it," BSD Supt. Marc Casavant added. "My hope would be that the government has a solid case as to why they would go in whatever direction their going to go. I think we’re just in a position where we are waiting to see what that looks like, knowing we need a new school."
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