Another day, another P3

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Article: Paige Kreutzwieser – Staff Writer

A month ago, the Saskatchewan government stated their plans to build nine new elementary schools to deal with the surge of students within the province, through a public-private-partnership (P3) model.

Since Oct. 22, limited information has come out of this announcement. What we do know is, according to Premier Brad Wall, student enrolment has climbed over 70 percent in the last six years, and some elementary schools are even experiencing 180 percent capacity.

We also know that the Chairs on both the Regina Public and Catholic school division boards are in favour of expanding their facilities to deal with not only the aging infrastructure of their current schools, but also the immediate issue of over capacity.

Whether you support a public-private-partnership model or not, it is inevitable that students need more effective learning environments if their classrooms are reaching 180 percent capacity.

But, despite the lack of details at the moment, people around the province are still up-in-arms about the idea of businesses involving themselves in our educational system.

Much uproar is due to the lack of information on P3 models in the educational sphere. Basically, people don’t know if it’s going to be an efficient economic decision or not.

Examples to look upon are the 1997 Nova Scotia P3 school model and the 2008 government of Alberta’s decision to build 18 new P3 funded schools in Calgary and Edmonton. Both have been critiqued due to the P3 model (and the former even being canned completely) because of the financial burden that it creates.

Nova Scotia’s experience is the go-to example for those against P3 models; site selection issues, diminished community accountability, and lack of transparency are key reasons to their argument.

Yet, our province needs some sort of answer for the increased population in Saskatchewan. When teachers are overrun with students, does effective learning really take place?

The biggest issue surrounding the Sask Party’s P3 education model is there are still so many questions from the public and not enough answers.

Right now, the school has much control over who can use their facilities (i.e. gyms), but once the schools become partially privatized, does the responsibility of extra-curricular activities shift?

What about the concept of joint schools and how this will affect the students? This comes from the government’s proposal of the Catholic and Public school divisions operating classrooms under the same roof. Is this functional to have two schools buying for time with the use of certain things, for instance, again, the gym?

Or what about approvals for upgrades to either the building or the equipment and resources inside? How much stake will the private side have, or will these decisions still stay among the school divisions?

The most important issue to me is how this will affect the students. If more space, better learning environments, and innovative buildings (check out Douglas Park School and their open-concept building) is what we are getting out of this, than I don’t see a problem in a P3 model being involved in the educational system.

An underlying issue concerning me, however, is the toll this may be taking on the teachers.

Communication between the current government and teachers is already tarnished, and this was highlighted between the Sask Party making their “innovative” announcement the same day teachers around the province were voting on a new contract — and to some, this is a political move done by the government to gain more confidence and support from teachers, something the Sask Party is lacking.

So, what this P3 model will really bring to the future of elementary classrooms is still up for debate. But what we need to do, as university students — especially those in the education department — is to raise these questions.

Because in 20 or 30 years, when this public-private contract is coming to its closure, and more of us become property owning taxpayers, I don’t want any surprises to find out that “oops! We went over budget and now I’m stuck paying higher taxes so the government can pay off Viterra Elementary School.”

We do need more schools — both elementary and secondary — to deal with our growing population, but don’t get fooled by the esthetics that these private companies may flash our way. We need to have constant communication with the front line — the teachers — to know what they need to make classrooms more effective for their students, not just what looks good to the CEO of a company.

Image: Kyle Leitch

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