Board attacks P3 requirement

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      Trustees reject provincial vetting of capital projects as contrary to public interest

      The vice-chair of the Burnaby school board is furious at an edict from Premier Gordon Campbell that many provincially funded capital projects will be required to be vetted by Partnerships BC for consideration as public-private partnerships (P3s).

      “Why should school boards be forced by the provincial government to accept the private operation of public schools?” Kathy Corrigan told the Georgia Straight. “They would be more expensive and would create a mountain of headaches as we get locked in to long-term contracts that may not respond to changing educational needs.”

      On November 14, the Burnaby school board approved a motion proposed by Corrigan that the board “strongly opposes the provincial directive that ”˜capital projects with a value over $20 million be considered first by Partnerships BC to be built as public-private partnerships unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise.’”

      The motion was approved by a 6–1 vote, with only trustee Richard Lee opposed.

      The preamble noted that many planned new schools and school-refurbishment projects will exceed the $20-million threshold. It also claimed that the record of P3s in other jurisdictions has been “dismal” and that they are “far more expensive than traditional building projects and will lock taxpayers into 30- or 35-year inflexible contracts”.

      As well, the preamble said, the new requirement is “an affront to the autonomy of locally elected school boards, and contrary to the public interest to be forced to transfer control and operation of public schools to private, for-profit corporations”.

      Corrigan said this week that building a school as a P3 would introduce a host of administrative problems for school boards.

      “I don’t want to have to consult a contractor over whether we can use gyms at night or put tape on the walls or to fight over whether the school is being maintained,” she said. “And for the safety of our students and staff, I want to know that the employees in our buildings are school-board employees that we know and can trust.”

      On October 27, Campbell told the annual convention of the Union of B.C. Municipalities that for all provincially funded projects worth more than $20 million, Partnerships BC will “take a hard look at how [each] might be built as a public-private partnership”.

      Corrigan said two of the board’s priority projects would meet this requirement: the rebuilding of Alpha secondary school and Burnaby North secondary school.

      Greater Victoria school board chair Michael McEvoy called the Partnerships BC requirement “absolutely ludicrous”.

      “This is ideology run amok,” McEvoy told the Straight. “How do you apply a P3 to a school? In the normal case for a P3, a private company will take on a risk in exchange for an income stream or a cash flow or some sort of payback. My question would be, How do you do that in the case of a public school?”

      It is impossible to extract such an income stream by charging the students, he said. “What is the idea? Are they suggesting we put up a McDonald’s in the school grounds as a way to generate cash flow for the entrepreneur taking on the risk? This is ludicrous; it’s truly an ideological brain freeze.”

      NDP education critic David Cubberley told the Straight that Campbell’s edict clashes with his government’s supposed commitment to local control, as well as with its support for the reduction of red tape.

      “This is just another form of regulation, requiring that projects go through the P3 mill that the premier’s set up,” Cubberley said. “This is more of the shell game being played with P3s.”

      Cubberley added that there is no demand that the use of a P3 model for a particular project be independently justified.

      “They don’t have to compete with a publicly funded, publicly directed project and show that they’re actually competitive,” he said. “They just go through an organization that is paid to pop out one answer, which is ”˜P3 good, public initiative bad.’”