Alberta to pursue contracts with private builders to construct five new schools

EDMONTON — Alberta is back in the business of partnering with the private sector to build schools.

Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda says five of 25 new school projects being built over the next five years may be constructed using the so-called P3 method.

Under the public, private partnership model, government strikes a deal with a private contractor to have the contractor design, build and in some cases maintain infrastructure such as a school or highway.

Panda says he believes there are strong business cases to building the five schools using the P3 method, with a request for qualifications going out to industry in the spring.

He says that given tight finances, Alberta needs to look at alternative financing options.

But he says each case will be looked at so it makes sense for taxpayers.

“Whether it’s P3 builds or other traditional builds, there are always concerns. So we’ll look at the lessons learned, what worked well, what didn’t work well,” Panda said Tuesday.

“P3s will bring in private finance. We can build infrastructure faster and also on budget and we can include innovation into the early design.”

P3s are used in other countries but critics say they can go awry if contracts don’t have specific targets and penalties or if governments fail to follow up to make sure work is done right and on time.

They say it’s also problematic if selection and subsequent value-for-money audits aren’t transparent.

Alberta has used P3s in the past to build schools, along with ring roads in Edmonton and Calgary and a wastewater treatment plan in Kananaskis Country.

P3s were pursued in Alberta by the Progressive Conservative government, but abandoned in recent years under former premier Rachel Notley’s NDP.

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said there were problems getting things fixed when a school was run by a private contractor.

“It was clear there wasn’t a good return on investment,” said Hoffman.

“There were giant trenches in schoolyards that the contractors failed to fix and the (school) board wasn’t allowed to because it wasn’t their property or their asset.

“We’d have kids kick a shoe up on the roof of the school and nobody was allowed to go get it because it wasn’t the school’s roof. It was the contractor’s roof.”

Two of the five proposed P3 schools are to be in Edmonton, with the others in Calgary, Cochrane and Legal.

Alberta has set aside $397 million over five years for 25 new school projects.

Panda said the government may or may not stop at five P3s.

“We don’t know how many (P3s) but we’ll review every project,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2019.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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