Thanks to an innovative public-private partnership (P3) between the government of Saskatchewan and the private sector, thousands of children have gone back to school this month in 18 new schools housed in nine brand new buildings.

As successfully educating our children is essential to our future, it is important that governments invest heavily in that future, without breaking the bank in the present. Saskatchewan achieved this goal by leveraging a public-private partnership to build 18 new schools, with nine new buildings each housing a Catholic and public school, spread across five school districts in six cities.
The decision to proceed with a P3 was made after it was determined through extensive due diligence that the P3 schools could be built at a cost of $635 million, compared to $735 million for traditional long-term public borrowing.

“With a P3, the private sector companies accept all the risks associated with construction,” says David Marit, the minister responsible for SaskBuilds. “In this case, we saved enough money with the P3 option that we were able to build four additional schools.”

Plainsview/St. Nicholas School in Regina. Photo: Chad Glascock, Ministry of Education Education.

Investing in the present and the future

The due diligence was performed by SaskBuilds, Saskatchewan’s dedicated infrastructure agency. The recently created agency has been tasked with driving “innovation in infrastructure financing, design, and delivery, including public-private partnerships,” as part of The Saskatchewan Plan for Growth.

“Saskatchewan is still one of the fastest-growing provinces in Canada,” says Education Minister Bronwyn Eyre. “With that comes the responsibility to build the roads and schools that a growing population needs.”

Using a P3 in this instance, the largest schools build in Saskatchewan history, ensured the project saved money, while also being finished on time and on budget, as the private consortium is completely responsible if the project goes over budget or past the deadline. It also created many well-paying jobs for the 30-plus years covered by the construction and maintenance agreement.

“More than 70 percent of the companies involved in design and construction were from Saskatchewan,” says Marit.  “This was particularly beneficial, as the schools were being built when oil was close to $30 a barrel and there was a need for good jobs in the province.”

Retaining public control an essential element of P3s

Now, two years after construction crews broke ground, school divisions have received the keys and opened the doors of the new schools to students, staff, families, and community members. Most importantly, they not only received the keys to the schools, but have complete control of the buildings.

“Thirty years ago schools built through P3s were being leased to governments, but that’s not how it is being done any more”, says Marit. “If you follow the Saskatchewan model you maintain government ownership and strong local public control over the schools.”

SaskBuilds doesn’t spend a penny until the schools are ready to open. It pays the private consortiums over 30 years,  during which time the private sector is responsible for major maintenance, while the government maintains complete control of the buildings.

Student and teacher input key to maximizing value

At the design stage, input was sought from hundreds of students, parents, teachers, and staff. Designed based on that feedback, the school are open-concept and ultramodern.  They feature in-floor heating, walls that open and close to adjust learning environments, outdoor classrooms, and main staircases that double as auditorium spaces. There are 90 permanent child-care spaces at each site, and school boards control community access to the buildings.

“Not only do we retain complete control of the buildings, by inviting input from the community at the beginning of the design process we were able to get exactly what the community wanted,” says Eyre. “The schools were built to be used by teachers and with the expectation that kids are going to do things that kids do.”