Saturday August 23, 2014

Rural Sask. must get more from boom


One might not necessarily know it from the number of new half tons one sees on rural Saskatchewan’s main streets, but smaller communities aren’t benefiting as much from the boom.

Or at least, they are not benefiting as much in a long-term way where it really counts.

Take the recent figures in overall Saskatchewan student enrolment that has increased to 170,582 after stagnating around 160,000 for most of the last decade. Nineteen of 29 school divisions reported increased enrolment from last year.

However, that growth is hardly equitable.

For example, Sun West School Division had 4,990 students in 2005-06, but only 4,544 students registered for this year. By contrast, Saskatoon School Division had 20,306 in 2005-06, but 22,167 this year.

It’s the old frustration of the depopulation of agricultural-based rural communities while the cities grow. Even in this period where most school divisions across the province are at least holding their own, overall, they aren’t doing as well.

For this, one can hardly fault the Saskatchewan Party government. This is the age-old reality in our province. In fact, some might be inclined to credit Premier Brad Wall’s administration for reversing Saskatchewan’s de-population trend.

But more irksome is the way Sask. Party government is now addressing growth issues where small and rural-based Saskatchewan businesses aren’t likely to benefit as much as they should.

At issue is the government’s plan to build nine needed new schools through a public-private partnership (P3) model to meet overcrowding.

That most of these schools will be built in Saskatoon and Regina (ironically, Regina has been in the business of closing schools in the past 10 years) is a given. The government cannot be blamed for that.

But what’s less acceptable is that even in rural-based communities like Martensville and Warman that will also get schools, it’s quite possible that local contractors won’t get much of an shot at bidding. That’s because of the bulk-build-bundle model the government is choosing.

According to Saskatchewan Construction Association (SCA) Director Mark Cooper, it boils down to the government’s decision to “bundle” all nine schools under one contractor for approximately $50-million each. This is actually a hefty per school pricetag, well in excess of recent school costs so it would seem that the savings are not to be had.

Cooper said a similar bundled model for Alberta schools is not only costing more because there aren’t enough bidders but also is defeating the intended purpose of this type of contracting to get things built quicker. In fact, 19 P3 model schools being built in Alberta under this bundling concept will likely be delayed because of a lack of bidders. Even Alberta’s Wildrose Party is now taking exception to the plan and for good reason.

The SCA director explained that if you are an electrical contractor in Martensville who wants to bid on the contract for the local school being in your community, you will likely have to bid on the electrical contract for the other eight bundled schools.

This means that such small contractors — including those in rural communities — will likely be shut out of the process. That makes doing business in rural Saskatchewan that much less viable — the very thing that makes long-term declining enrolment in rural Saskatchewan a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is troubling and even the Sask. Party government had its past qualms about the P3s for schools. Five years ago, former education and now Finance Minister Ken Krawetz rejected the P3 model for schools because of added costs over 25 years.

The Sask. Party government needs to be smarter to ensure rural communities and smaller businesses take advantage of this boom.

Maybe we do need to build these schools quickly, but it can’t come at the cost of actually widening the inequity between rural and urban Saskatchewan.

Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.



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