Education

School board calling on province to keep P3 schools

Board can’t lose any of the schools, while calling for ‘different types of financing.’

Madeline Symonds Middle School, one of the P3 schools in consideration. Taken from Google Maps.
Madeline Symonds Middle School, one of the P3 schools in consideration. Taken from Google Maps.   Francis Tessier-Burns

The province needs to keep all P3 schools in Halifax open, say members of the Halifax Regional School Board.

During a meeting Wednesday evening, Elwin LeRoux, the board’s superintendent said the 10 P3 schools in the district were “important to our inventory.”

The former provincial Liberal government partnered with private developers: Ashford Properties Inc., Nova Learning, and Scotia Learning Centres to build 39 schools through public-private partnerships in the 1990s.

The project was created to meet the need for new schools in a short period of time, in an era when the province was concerned with high deficits. Now, those leases are nearing their end.

The leases for the 10 P3 schools in the Halifax board are up between 2018-2020, but the province has to decide whether it buys the buildings, enters a new lease agreement or even walks away altogether by this summer.  

“We need [the province] to understand these are required,” said board spokesman Doug Hadley. “They need to either make a new lease or buy them.”

Board members voiced concerns at Wednesday’s meeting about the province’s approach to dealing with the public-private partnership schools.

Sheryl Blumenthal-Harrison, board member for District 6 Clayton Park West-Spryfield, said it felt like the board was “being held hostage by the Department [of Education and Early Childhood Development].” She meant the province would either provide funding short-term to keep the P3 schools open or get funding for other long-term projects, but not both.

Sandra McKenzie, the deputy minister of education and early childhood development, was not available for comment. However, in a letter she sent to the board in December last year, she wrote, “any decisions about the future of P3 schools in Nova Scotia will be based on the educational needs of students and the fiscal realities of the province today and in the future.”

Schools in question

The 10 schools in question are:

  • Bedford South School  
  • Park West School  
  • Portland Estates Elementary School  
  • Sackville Heights Elementary School  
  • O’Connell Drive Elementary School  
  • Eastern Passage Education Centre  
  • Lockview High School  
  • Madeline Symonds Middle School
  • Ridgecliff Middle School  
  • St. Margaret’s Bay Elementary School

“All these schools either have growing enrolment or steady enrolment for the past few years,” said board spokesman Hadley.

He adds if some of these schools were to close there would have to be some “serious shuffling” to do.

Some shuffling would make kids in certain areas have 45-minute bus rides or more, something Hadley said the general public “doesn’t have an appetite for.”

He adds the P3 schools are still young compared to others in the district, where he says the average age is around 40 years old.

P3s in the province

In December 2015, the Nova Scotia Government & General Employees Union released a document obtained through an access to information request, which showed the schools cost taxpayers about $726 million over their 20-year lease terms.

And that’s if the province doesn’t decide to buy the buildings or renew leases in the future.

An auditor general report dating back to 2010 put the price tag at $830 million over that same 20-year span.

Going forward

At Wednesday’s meeting, Dave Wright, the board’s vice-chair, said board members’ collective voice needed to become stronger.

“Our responsibility is to say, ‘This is for the students’,” he said.

Hadley also clarified the board’s concerns by saying, “This is the time to start thinking of different types of financing. We can’t continue to do the same and expect a different result.”

View a list of all 39 schools.