by Jim Tredger
Since the first announcement many years ago, the saga of replacing the aging F.H. Collins Secondary School has been characterized by broken promises, delays, confusion, setbacks and flip-flops.
The public has had a front-row seat to this mess in which new problems were always lurking around the corner: postponed construction, delays and changes to tenders, geothermal heating proposals in then out then in again, and uncertainty and mixed messages over gym demolition.
The backdrop to this mess, not to be forgotten, is the blatant political opportunism of the sod-turning ceremony to nowhere when the Yukon Party government announced on the eve of the last election that a new school would open in August 2013.
Despite all these bumps in the road, Yukoners retained hope that someday a fine new school would be built; a school they helped plan by attending meetings and giving their input. It was to be a place to be proud of, where generations of Yukoners would learn, thrive and grow.
Last week, as Yukon students were enjoying a break from their studies, the premier and minister of education announced they were unilaterally scrapping the plan for the new school and going with a “campus-style” design.
Construction companies that priced the job based on the original plan bid too high, the government said. Hitting the reset button on years of work would be the “fiscally responsible” thing to do, the premier and minister exclaimed.
The Yukon Party government has a long track record of mismanaging major public projects. It has a history of huge cost overruns (athletes’ village, Tantalus School, Whitehorse Correctional Centre), of building without properly demonstrated need (Watson Lake and Dawson City hospitals), of overseeing projects with major functional problems (Dawson City sewage project, Watson Lake multi-care facility) and spending millions on planning without any end product.
And their announcement that the design for F.H. Collins had been scrapped means somewhere between $3 and $6 million has been wasted.
The public will have a hard time swallowing the government’s excuse of fiscal responsibility, and an even harder time accepting the rejection of a plan that the school community, including educators, administrators, students and parents, helped develop and got behind. Even the government’s own officials in the Department of Education and the Department of Highways and Public Works supported the plan, having rejected years ago the same “campus style” concepts that are now being touted by the premier and minister.
There are many questions about what transpired, and vague, pat answers from government invoking supposed fiscal responsibility just don’t cut it.
I’ve heard from some Yukoners who rightly wonder if there wasn’t a way to keep the bulk of the existing design and work with contractors to shave off some costs, instead of throwing out all the work done to date and starting again from scratch.
This project would have meant lots of work this summer for Yukon building trades workers - carpenters, sheet metal workers, construction engineers, and so on. These jobs, that would have pumped money into the local economy and back to the government in taxes, won’t be here this summer.
Did the government consider the impacts that postponing this project will have on local contractors working in the construction trades? How does this negative economic impact factor into the Yukon Party government’s version of fiscal responsibility?
How was it that all three contractors’ bids were so off the mark from the government’s own estimates?
And how could a project, deemed by the minister to be both on-time and on-budget just a month ago, be sent back to the drawing board so soon thereafter?
In three separate audits over the past five years, Canada’s auditor general has consistently found that the Yukon government does not anticipate and mitigate risk in major capital projects. Despite its long history of bungling projects and pointed criticisms from the auditor general, opposition politicians and Yukoners who expect good value from their tax dollars, it doesn’t appear that the current government has learned any lessons.
Members of the public are scratching their heads over this government’s decision, and I don’t blame them. The Yukon Party government’s handling of this project doesn’t look like fiscally responsible and competent management to me. In fact, it appears to be exactly the opposite.
Perhaps more importantly, it looks like a missed opportunity for current and future generations of students whose lives will be affected by the government’s inability to get the job done.
Jim Tredger is the NDP’s critic for public schools and MLA for Mayo-Tatchun.