Timelines accelerated for five new school construction projects

Five new Alberta schools once destined to be built as public-private partnerships will now be publicly run construction projects, Alberta’s infrastructure minister said.

Public-private partnership plans off the table for construction

Alberta Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda said even though a third-party study found there would be value for money by building five schools with a P3 model, he opted for traditional builds to accelerate construction on the projects. (Prasad Panda campaign)

Five new Alberta schools once destined to be built as public-private partnerships will now be publicly run construction projects, Alberta's infrastructure minister said.

Minister Prasad Panda said in a Tuesday interview the provincial government will borrow money to get construction going more quickly on two new K-9 schools in Edmonton, along with new schools in Calgary, Cochrane and Legal.

"To the extent possible, even under the COVID situation, I am trying not to miss this construction season," he said. "That's the whole purpose."

By maintaining government control of the projects, Panda hopes construction can begin sooner, creating around 560 construction jobs once in full swing. The schools should be open by fall 2022, which was sooner than initially planned.

It would also see the government fund maintenance and renewal work for the schools — tasks that are sometimes bundled into public-private partnership (P3) contracts.

Trisha Estabrooks, chair of the Edmonton public school board, said she was pleased to see an aggressive timeline for a new K-9 school in Windermere. Getting new schools built rapidly in growing suburbs is more important to families than how they're built, she said Tuesday.

 "We need to alleviate the space crunch that we have in many of our schools," she said.

P3 projects can be controversial

The province's approach is a change from November, when Panda said contracts for construction of the $100-million bundle of five schools were likely to be awarded to P3 bidders.

In a P3 arrangement, contractors assume more of the financial risk. Private companies can design, build, finance and maintain the public buildings, sometimes for as long as 30 years.

The approach can be controversial. Boosters and detractors have debated whether the arrangements save the public any money in the long term.

Parents of Edmonton students at some P3 schools that opened in 2010 have said the lack of control over the buildings caused numerous problems.

They said classrooms were too warm while staff tried to contact a contractor in Toronto to turn down the thermostat.

Poor drainage at Bessie Nichols School in the Hamptons and Johnny Bright School in Rutherford left school yards covered in mud. The contractor fenced off the hazardous areas, but parents said the yards weren't repaired or accessible for years.

Estabrooks said infrastructure leaders at Edmonton Public Schools were relieved at Tuesday's news of a traditional construction approach. It should give the division more control over the design of the school, and will allow division staff to quickly fix problems or make changes that arise once the school opens.

Seemingly simple changes like installing a water fountain or a light fixture can become complex in a P3 arrangement, she said.

P3s still in Alberta's future, minister says

After conducting a review, the former NDP government opted not to build public infrastructure using P3 arrangements.

The United Conservative Party government, on the other hand, is a proponent and promised to "aggressively" pursue them.

Last fall, the government created an office within the infrastructure ministry to examine which projects might be good P3 candidates.

Panda said Tuesday he still aims to start some major P3 projects. Calgary's expansion of the Deerfoot Trail is one currently under consideration, he said.

"Given the financial situation we're experiencing in Alberta, we definitely need private finance to build public infrastructure going forward," he said.

Private contractors might have trouble finding that financing during the pandemic and resulting economic slump, he said.

The new Edmonton schools are $33-million K-9 public school in Windermere and a $31-million K-9 Catholic school in the same neighbourhood.

The government hopes to award construction contracts in spring and summer so work can begin in September.

There are 26 schools currently under construction across the province. Work is expected to begin on 19 more school projects between April and December 2020, including the five the government just switched to the traditional building process.