Edmonton

Alberta government considers public-private partnerships for 5 high school builds

Five new Alberta high schools worth a total of more than $200 million could be constructed and maintained by private companies.

School divisions say high school space urgently needed

Alberta Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda's department is studying whether a group of five new high schools should be built and maintained as public-private partnerships. (Prasad Panda campaign)

Five new Alberta high schools could be built and maintained as public-private partnerships (P3s), according to the provincial infrastructure department.

Alberta Infrastructure is exploring whether it can save money by engaging a private company to assume the risks of constructing and owning a bundle of new high schools in Edmonton, Leduc, Blackfalds and Langdon.

Together, the projects would be worth more than $200 million and accommodate more than 6,000 students.

"P3s have been successfully used to deliver school projects and have demonstrated value for money when compared to traditional delivery methods," said Hadyn Place, press secretary to Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda, in an email last month.

However, P3 construction projects can be controversial. Edmonton school boards have previously struggled with flooded and muddy school yards they were powerless to fix and boiling classrooms in which the temperature could only be controlled by calling someone in Toronto.

Some critics say P3 contracts look cheaper up front but cost more in the long run as governments make payments over decades.

Last year, the Alberta government explored building five new elementary-junior high schools as P3s. Panda later changed his mind, saying government would fund the construction to create jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Former Progressive Conservative governments built approximately 40 P3 schools in Alberta.

High school space an urgent need

Five projects that the government promised to fund in April 2020 are part of a bundle of builds that could be P3s. They include:

  • A public high school in Edmonton's Meadows area for 2,400 students, at a cost of at least $81 million.
  • A Catholic high school in Edmonton's Heritage Valley for 1,300 students, at an estimated cost of $52 million.
  • A $47-million public high school in Leduc with an opening capacity of 1,000 students and the possibility of future additions.
  • The first public high school in Blackfalds, for 970 students in Grades 9-12, at a cost of $29 million.
  • A public Grade 7-12 school for Langdon, in Rocky View school division, for 900 students. An estimated cost was unavailable.

Construction is expected to start on the schools in 2021, and they should be open for students by September 2024.

Although the infrastructure minister has not yet made a decision, several school divisions have been told to plan as if the schools will be P3s.

High schools in suburban Edmonton, as well as bedroom communities in Edmonton and Calgary, are running out of room as a demographic bulge of children approach their teen years. (Reuters/Vincent Kessler)

Spokespeople for several school divisions said the need for more space is so dire, they're less concerned with how the construction is funded.

John Fiacco, Edmonton Catholic Schools' superintendent of educational planning, said Monday that two Catholic high schools in south Edmonton are already full. A demographic bulge of students has also filled K-9 schools in the south beyond capacity. Fiacco said they'll need somewhere to go.

"Our push is to get spaces for students to learn," he said. "And whether it comes through a P3 model or driven by the province, we just want to work with whatever construct is given to us in order to make this happen."

Growth continues despite pandemic

The residents of Langdon, which is 35 kilometres east of Calgary, have been advocating for a local high school for years, said Greg Luterbach, superintendent of Rocky View Schools, last week.

High school students ride the bus about 12 km to Chestermere, where the public high school is also nearly full, he said. Both communities are growing.

Although Luterbach is happy to have the new high school on the way, he wonders how a P3 arrangement could affect the potential to partner with the local county to potentially build a shared community facility with the school.

In Leduc, 33 km south of Edmonton, the high school is bursting at 110 per cent capacity, Black Gold school division superintendent Bill Romanchuk said last week.

A long-term maintenance contract for P3 schools is what worries division leaders, he said. Simple repairs like a paint touch-up or repaired hole in the wall must all go through a third-party contractor, which is more expensive than division employees doing the repairs themselves, he said.

"We're not going to bite the hand that feeds us," he said. "We've expressed our preferences to Alberta Infrastructure and our MLA. We're getting a new school and we're happy about that."

An Amazon warehouse and supply operations coming to Leduc is expected to create at least 5,000 jobs and will likely bring an even larger influx of students, he said.

Edmonton Public School Board chair Trisha Estabrooks says growth remains the school division's biggest challenge, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Edmonton Public Schools is also "desperate" for more high schools, chair Trisha Estabrooks said Monday.

She thinks her division is best placed to manage school construction projects efficiently. Although some previous P3 builds were successful, others had "significant problems" once they were open, she said.

"I think about situations where small changes are needed within the school and there's a big hullabaloo to get it changed in the P3 contract," she said. "There's concerns about maintenance work not being done in a timely fashion."

Estabrooks acknowledged that the United Conservative Party government campaigned on more P3 infrastructure projects, and she said parents with kids in crowded schools likely care most about whether there's space for their teens.

"At the end of the day, we need schools, and we need them built as quickly as possible."

About the Author

Janet French is a provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton. She has also been a reporter at the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca

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