P3 model may result in school delays

Two weeks ago, a large ‘Building Alberta’ sign denoting the spot where the provincial government has committed to build a new school in Blackfalds was unveiled.

Two weeks ago, a large ‘Building Alberta’ sign denoting the spot where the provincial government has committed to build a new school in Blackfalds was unveiled.

Now the scheduled opening date for that badly-needed school may be question.

Alberta Infrastructure contacted Wolf Creek Public Schools and other school divisions in the province recently to say that there may be delays in the construction of 19 schools across the province. The projects were announced earlier this year and expected to open in 2016.

The potential delay is a result of only one consortium responding to the government’s request for proposals to construct the schools.

The government has bundled school builds together under the public-private partnership (P3) model, a process it says saves money and gets builds done faster.

It was hoping to choose three proponents to submit a price for the construction of all 19 schools this fall before selecting a winner in mid-2014, with building following shortly after.

“The feedback has just been that there’s a lot of work going on out in Alberta and the contractors aren’t sure they can commit to a project maybe that big, because everybody’s super busy,” said Alberta Infrastructure spokesperson Tracy Larsen said Tuesday.

Despite the warning about delays, Larsen said “we’re still going to have the schools done for 2016.” The department is now reconsidering how it will select who will build the facilities.

While supportive of the original concept of the P3 model as a means of improving efficiency and cutting down on costs, Wolf Creek Public Schools superintendent Larry Jacobs said the idea needs some tweaking.

“We’ve bundled them too big and all of a sudden now we find out that companies can’t bid on those,” said Jacobs.

He said by creating too big a group of projects, smaller companies are frozen out of the process and only the biggest builders on the continent can handle such a big undertaking.

He suggested the bundle should be broken into groups of two to four schools so local companies can bid.

The government has committed to fund the construction of 50 new schools over the next three years, plus 70 modernizations of existing structures.

Under the P3 format, industry is to design and build new schools in the province, financing at least half the cost of construction before being paid out over 30 years.

The province’s first P3 schools bundle included the building of 18 schools, the second included 10, and the third, which featured three facilities for Red Deer and one for Penhold, included 12.

There were at least four bids submitted for the contracts in each of those cases.

During question period at the legislature on Tuesday, Education Minister Jeff Johnson said there would be another round of school announcements by the end of 2013, focusing on modernizations. He said another round of new school announcements would come in the spring of 2014.

Red Deer Catholic Regional School Division board chair Adriana LaGrange said she had been expecting new schools to be announced this fall, an announcement that would hopefully include a new Catholic high school for Red Deer to alleviate enrolment pressures at Notre Dame High School. A name has already been chosen for a future school and the land has been purchased for its proposed location.

“If we get the announcement, we’ll be ready to roll.”

LaGrange said any delay in an announcement would only increase the pressure on an already stuffed Notre Dame.

Both Red Deer Catholic and Red Deer Public School Divisions have schools set to open next September that are being built under the P3 model. École Barrie Wilson, a public elementary school, will open in the Timberlands neighbourhood, while Father Henri Voisin School is under construction in Clearview Ridge.

Red Deer Public Schools superintendent Piet Langstraat said the process has proven to be very different than traditional school builds, with the division not as involved as was previously the case. He said the most interesting part of the process from a divisional perspective will be when it has to enter into an agreement with a contractor on the maintenance of the facility over 30 years.

Once opened, the schools will be owned and operated by the school boards, and the ownership contract will allow for joint-use agreements and third-party leasing arrangements.

mfish@bprda.wpengine.com