If your kid is going to school in a classroom that resembles a janitorial closet, you don’t care how the new school in your area is being built. I get it.
Overcrowded schools are a huge issue in our province; we’ve seen classrooms set up in school boot rooms, hallways, decommissioned science labs, art rooms and even libraries, and of course, the dreaded portables (which I don’t see a problem with, but that’s a different post).
Even though the slate of new schools being constructed in our province is necessary, it’s still important to have a grasp of what they’re costing us, and why.
Put very simply, a P3 deal is a rent-to-own deal. The provincial government finds a company (or group of companies) willing to front their own cash to build a piece of infrastructure – ie. a school – and then the government rents that school for thirty years, at which point they’re finally paid up and own it.
The company who built the school maintains the school, because, well… when you rent a house, do you maintain it?
Let’s start by looking at the sale and construction of Saskatoon’s Willowgrove School, a joint-use Catholic/public elementary school in a relatively new neighborhood.
In 2008, the City of Saskatoon approved the $2.7 million sale of seven acres of city-owned land to the Saskatoon Public School Division and the Greater Saskatoon Separate (aka Catholic) School Board.
The $2.7 million from the school boards went into the City of Saskatoon’s Willowgrove Neighborhood Land Development Fund, so the residents of Willowgrove really came out on top – they got a new school, plus a fat reserve of development cash for cool stuff like parks.
The City of Saskatoon (and Regina) collects property tax off residents on behalf of three organizations: the public/Catholic School boards, City Hall, and libraries.
Therefore this land acquisition, dubbed by the Saskatchewan government as the Traditional Model, looks something like this (yes, simplified):
Once the land was secured, the Saskatchewan government went on to spend $38-million provincial dollars on the construction of the joint-use school.
In 2014, the year before Willowgrove’s doors opened to students, the provincial government announced the construction of more new schools.
Feast your eyes on this hot mess, from a July 2014 government news release, eagerly boasting that they were moving forward with “18 new schools”:
Honest to god, who writes this
What its trying to say is that they are building nine new joint-use (meaning a public and a Catholic school sharing the same building, like Willowgrove) school buildings: three in Regina, one in Martensville, four in Saskatoon and one in Warman.
Remember when the Sask Party government scrapped the former NDP government’s “utility bundles”?
“We feel that the lowest-cost utility bundle was political in purposes and somewhat gimmicky.” – then Crown Corps Minister Ken Chevaldayoff, in 2008.
Something to keep in mind next time you hear this government refer to P3 “bundles”.
But I digress.
In 2015 the government announced that Saskatchewan’s nine new public/Catholic schools will be built by a group calling themselves the ‘Joint Use Mutual Partnership’, or JUMP (catchy!), which is comprised of:
- Concert Infrastructure Ltd.
- Bird Capital Limited Partnerships/Bird Design‐Build Construction Inc.
- Wright Construction Western Inc.
- Kindrachuck Agrey Architecture
- Johnson Controls Canada LP
- GEC Architecture
In fact, not only are these schools on the fast-track to open, the provincial government says we’re going to save money – $100 million to be exact, or 13 per cent of the cost of the Traditional Model; a figure conveniently backed up four months later in a KPMG report.
We’ve never seen the report, so we’ll have to take their word for it.
You know what they say about things that sound too good to be true, right?
Earlier I outlined how in 2008, under the Traditional Model, the City of Saskatoon sold the land to the Saskatoon school boards to build Willowgrove School.
Times have changed.
From the Saskatoon City Council minutes of April 13, 2015:
In 2015 the City of Saskatoon bought the land for the Saskatoon school boards, at the behest of the provincial government. $23 million altogether, including $16 million worth from three private developers, including Dream Developments.
A paltry $8 million towards that was provided by the provincial government.
The rest came from something called the Community Centre Levy Reserve (CCLR) – a levy charged on new Saskatoon residential developments since 2002, starting with Hampton Village and Willowgrove – created to build community centres that could be wedged between two schools, if the province was building them. Like Saskatoon’s Shaw Centre, for example.
In 2012 Saskatoon City Council saw the writing on the wall and amended the levy bylaw to allow for the Reserve to buy land for school sites.
Therefore, in 2015, buying land for Saskatoon’s new schools looked like this:
If you’ve ever been in Saskatoon’s Shaw Centre, which sits between Tommy Douglas Public high school and Bethlehem Catholic high school, you know what you’re now not getting, but here’s a reminder anyway:
- Ten-lane high performance 50 m pool with springboards, platform dive towers and spectator seating for 750
- Six-lane, 25 m pool.
- A family pool, which starts at zero depth, like a beach, and includes a shark slide, two water bucket trees, a bubbler, a yellow mushroom fountain, water rapids and two hot tubs (one is accessible – and a 150 ft waterslide!
- Two-level fitness centre including cardio theatre, treadmills, elliptical trainers, stationary bikes, stair climbers, rowing machines, weight machines and a variety of free weights and fitness equipment.
- Three-lane, 165 m track for walking and light jogging.
- Two community gymnasiums.
- A restaurant to serve both the school and the public.
- An outdoor playground.
- Multiple outdoor sports fields.
The City of Saskatoon’s justification for using the money to buy land for schools instead of to build awesomeness like what I just described, is basically that there will be daycare spaces and a gym (even a storage room!) in each school, so it’s a community centre.
This reasoning, from that report to Saskatoon City Council recommending the purchase of the land for schools, is likely more accurate:
“There are no options”, because the city desperately needs the schools and this is the only way residents are going to get them.
So let’s subtract $15 million from that $100 million in savings, shall we?
Meanwhile, in Regina…
Harbour Landing (HL), owned by Dream Developments, and Greens on Gardiner (GoG), owned by Yagar Developments, are two already well-established neighborhoods.
When a developer buys a huge chunk of land to build a whole neighborhood, they have to set aside 10 per cent of that land (called a Municipal Reserve) for the City of Regina (this applies to Saskatoon as well) to turn into parks, bike trails etc. Plus, the developer has to set aside land for the school divisions to buy to build new schools.
In HL and GoG, the City of Regina took their 10 per cent, or some portion thereof, but instead of turning it into parks and bike trails, they handed it to the school divisions to build a school.
It looks something like this:
In other words, in Harbour Landing and Greens on Gardiner, instead of getting parks, bike trails and a school, you’re getting a school. Even though you paid for all three.
Things are a whole lot worse in northwest Regina, however.
In the case of Harbour Landing, Dream Developments had already serviced and sold tons of new houses in that neighborhood. The 10 per cent for the City was ready and serviced, awaiting its brand new
park bike trails school. Same situation with Yagar Developments and GoG.
Development in northwest Regina more or less consists of an empty field.
Some guy owns one of those fields, and really wanted the new school in his planned neighborhood (which he has dubbed Skyview), but because there’s nothing really there yet he couldn’t come up with the cash to service a site for it.
He tried, but failed, leaving the City of Regina in a pickle.
From Regina’s July 27, 2015 City Council minutes:
“..the Province may cancel or defer…”
In other words, if the City of Regina didn’t find a spot in northwest Regina, northwest Regina wouldn’t get a school – and it would be their fault, not the Province’s.
In those same minutes, City Hall recommended that City Council choose a planned neighborhood up the street owned by Dream Developments. There wasn’t much happening there yet, but Dream had the cash flow to put in the necessary infrastructure for the school regardless.
Instead of Dream, City Council went in-camera and came out having chosen… a church.
Rosewood Park Alliance Church, the local subsidiary of the hard-right conservative (Stephen Harper’s church, in fact) international evangelical Christian and Missionary Alliance Church.
From a 2007 Vancouver Sun article:
“Alliance Church rules, like those of other evangelical denominations, strongly oppose homosexual relationships, describing them as the “basest form of sinful conduct”…is also tough on divorce and holds that Christians who have been adulterous do not have a right to remarry…the denomination’s leaders, in addition, oppose abortion, stem-cell research, euthanasia, the use of marijuana and ordained female clergy.”
Who knows, maybe they’ve changed.
Either way Rosewood Park Alliance church owns a little corner of land, on which their church sits, and on which they want to develop their own totally-no-repentsinner-pressure housing community (which Regina City Council also approved against recommendation from City Hall).
Further, the church was willing to install the infrastructure for the school, despite also not having actually built anything else yet.
There was one catch. Like the City of Saskatoon, Regina had received a bit of dough from the province – about $6 million – for this schmozle, and the church wanted at least some of it.
And they got it.
A year later, surprisingly, these soul-savers-cum-developers (who needs experience building communities when you’ve got God?) have also potentially crapped the bed.
Unfortunately, for just about everyone except the church, the new school is already halfway built.
So, if Rosewood church hasn’t prayed hard enough by April 29th to produce the $3 million bond they were supposed to have produced months ago, the City is going to have to step in and finish the infrastructure itself, which will cost taxpayers at least another $1.5 million.
So, Saskatoon and Regina, how’s that $100 million saving looking now?
Why does this matter?
I don’t know about you, but I prefer the truth, unvarnished, even if it isn’t pretty. And until recently, anyway, that was what we got from the Sask Party government.
Have a look at this, from those July 27th 2015 Regina City Council minutes:
Sorry, I must have missed the part in the 2016 election campaign, or ever, where the Sask Party told voters their government “can no longer afford” to purchase land for new schools.
From their election platform:
Yes, since 2007 the Sask Party has likely “invested” nearly a billion dollars, or 8 per cent of their budget for that time period, in school renos and construction.
But to associate that figure with these NINE new schools (you can’t say “eighteen joint-use schools”, because that means 36 new single-use schools #facepalm) – is rather misleading, no? I mean, even for an election campaign.
As for that $100-million in savings, the only entity saving anything (allegedly, because we’ve never actually seen real numbers) is the Ministry of Education.
Saving face, because the other option is admitting they can’t afford to build new schools, nevermind buy the land, despite reaping record resource-profits in the last decade.
Because by offloading the responsibility onto City Councils, those Councils are the ones who look bad when shit goes sideways, like it is in Regina.
Because by renting to own schools, as opposed to paying cash, we’ll probably all be dead by the time the final costs are known, so there will be no one for our kids to blame.
Saving money, because the Ministry of Education has downloaded the costs of buying that land onto you a second time: you’ve paid the provincial government your tax dollars to do their job on education, but that money’s gone, so now they’re helping themselves to the money you paid your urban municipality.
You’re paying twice for half the benefit.
To be fair, I also missed the part where the Saskatchewan NDP told us anything either.
They tried, bless their little hearts.
But what’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear the words ‘NDP’ and ‘P3’?
And perhaps – though I’m not holding my breath – they’ve figured out by now that NOBODY CARES.
In fact, we should be thanking those “private” businesses and “out-of-province companies” and “foreign-owned corporations” for financing our sorry asses so Saskatchewan kids don’t have to share classroom space with 250 pairs of wet winter boots, or try to get their teacher’s attention in a classroom with 40 other kids.
Trent, listen to me – I’m looking you in the eye right now – STOP. Banish those terms from your vocabulary, fire the next staffer who utters them in your presence, and figure out how to explain things to Saskatchewan residents in ways that mean something.
Those silly little diagrams I’ve used? My 11-year-old did them. He’s cheap, I can hook you up.
Anyway, I wanted to write about Warman and Martensville too, but I’m fairly certain they can count on being in the same boat, and I want to watch The Reverent now. Maybe later.
But next time a politician says something that sounds too good to be true? Check your wallet, because I guarantee while you were distracted, it was picked clean.