The Manitoba government’s main reason to make a U-turn and build classrooms via public-private partnerships — a controversial model the Tories rejected in 2018 — is to fulfil a new promise to open 22 public schools by 2027.
Internal documents obtained by the Free Press show government staffers have been in talks about using a public-private construction approach over the last year as a result of the Progressive Conservatives’ emphasis on new schools.
In 2019, the Pallister government pledged to construct 20 schools over a decade. Premier Heather Stefanson announced in 2022 that her government was boosting that commitment.
“A bundled approach to address the remaining (nine) schools is Manitoba’s best opportunity to meet the accelerated timeline,” states one confidential briefing on the so-called Manitoba Schools Project, dated Sept. 27.
A P3 sets out a long-term path to procuring public infrastructure. In the public education context, such contracts typically involve hiring a developer to finance, design, build and maintain a group of schools for several decades, after which contracts are complete and a government buys them.
The province has since confirmed plans to seek one bidder to construct nine schools in the Seine River, Beautiful Plains, Pembina Trails, Seven Oaks, Brandon, River East Transcona and the francophone school divisions.
The Sept. 27 briefing touted Alberta, which recently decided to stop using P3s to build schools, as a success story where public-private partnerships have resulted in savings compared to a traditional delivery model.
P3s could establish schedule certainty, leverage innovation in the private sector, and offload construction risks, according to the document.
The document was prepared for the ministers of government services and education. It was obtained, alongside dozens of internal memos about P3s that were exchanged between bureaucrats and political staffers in recent months, via a freedom of information request.
Much of the content of the memos was redacted, including details in written correspondence that discuss the province’s decision to continue using a traditional design, bid and build approach for schools in 2017-18, after a KPMG report recommended against leveraging P3s.
The government did not release what model was estimated to be more cost-effective for building a group of new schools five years ago.
The legible contents of a Feb. 16 email, which was prepared by a senior government services manager for the minister, indicated the department previously opted for a conventional approach while applying “`lessons learned’ through analysis conducted of Saskatchewan’s P3 approach.”
Shannon Moore said she and other members of People for Public Education want to know why any of the discussions about P3s are confidential if they involve public money and are supposedly being used out of public interest.
“They are trying to make the `solution’ of P3s fit, despite evidence that they do not reduce costs to the public,” the public education advocate said.
Moore noted some of the emails from March show government staffers scrambling to respond to questions raised about Alberta moving away from P3s, which she suggested “shows they are starting with P3s as a given.”
The Winnipeg Construction Association has not endorsed one model or the other, although its president noted there have yet to be any groups of schools built via P3 in the province.
“There’s pros and cons,” said president Ron Hambley.
The bonus is these projects are streamlined and as a result, meeting the September 2027 timeline should not be an issue, he said.
Hambley added: “The con might be that there are, in Manitoba, a number of medium-sized general contractors that could easily build a school — but would be largely excluded from a P3 of this size, for nine schools.”
The Canadian Union for Public Employees has repeatedly condemned the approach as expensive, risky and one that fails to recognize local needs by promoting one-size-fits when it comes to building schools.
The NDP education critic criticized the lack of transparency about the province’s U-turn while noting the standard public procurement process ensures project details are released in detail for anyone interested in reviewing them.
“Instead of corporate interests being served, it’s the public’s interests that need to be served,” Nello Altomare said.
The director of Halifax’s Schoolhouse Institute did a deep-dive on P3s in a bid to sort through the politicization of the model and pinpoint where his home province went wrong when it used the model in the 1990s.
What education policy analyst Paul Bennett found was that government officials were initially inexperienced with negotiating contracts and made mistakes in ensuring they got a good deal in the long run, in turn costing taxpayers.
The second time around was a different story, said Bennett, an adjunct professor of education at Saint Mary’s University.
“Governments need to go in with their eyes open, conscious of what the advantages are but very, very wary of entering into agreements unless they are completely sound,” he said.
Government services minister James Teitsma was not available for an interview.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the minister said student enrolment is increasing rapidly and adding significant pressures onto existing schools so the province has promised to complete nine new builds “in the most expedient manner.”
“This is not the P3 project from 2018,” the spokesperson said, adding market conditions and inflationary pressures have changed over the last five years.
“We undertook a process to determine the best way to deliver this larger bundle, consistent with existing standards, at the best price and on time.”
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