10/22/2013 03:11 EDT | Updated 12/22/2013 05:12 EST

Nine schools to be built in Saskatchewan to deal with surge in students

SASKATOON - Saskatchewan says nine new joint-use schools are planned in the province to deal with a surge in student enrolment.

The schools are to be built in communities with unprecedented growth. Four will be in Saskatoon, three in Regina, one in Warman and one in Martensville.

A joint-use school is one where public and Catholic schools could share things such as gymnasiums, practical and applied arts spaces, band rooms or daycares, while having their own teaching space and staff.

The idea is to share maintenance costs and save money. However, the exact model for the nine new schools is yet to be determined.

Vicky Bonnell, chairwoman of the Regina Catholic School Division board of education, says the new schools will go a long way to accommodate the city's growth.

"Our division has been growing on average the size of an elementary school each year for the past four years," Bonnell said in a news release Tuesday.

"While this growth is welcome, it does strain our facilities."

Premier Brad Wall has said there is a real demand for more student spaces across the province.

The number of elementary school students in Saskatchewan is up by about 11,000 since 2007. Most of that growth — almost 8,500 students — has been in Saskatoon, Regina, Warman and Martensville.

"Saskatoon Public Schools has seen unprecedented growth in the last few years," said Ray Morrison, chair of the Saskatoon Public School Division board of education.

"With new neighbourhoods being built, we need to ensure we can provide the right facilities to support learning for our students."

The Saskatchewan School Boards Association — which represents public, separate and francophone school divisions — says it welcomes the funding announcement for new school facilities. But the association also says it's concerned that there isn't a plan to address long-term needs for education infrastructure.

"We have heard from students and staff over the past few years that the growth pressures in some areas of the province have caused overcrowded classrooms," said association president Janet Foord. "Thankfully, announcements such as this one will alleviate some of those concerns.

"But there's more to do across the province and working in partnership with the Ministry of Education and other sector partners is necessary to address the long-term concerns."

For example, the association says about 75 per cent of roofing in Saskatchewan schools will fail within the next five years. It also notes that the average age of the buildings is about 50 years.

The new schools will be built through a public-private partnership, also known as a P3.

Construction could take about four years, but Wall has said the P3 model means schools can be built faster and for less money.

Opposition NDP Leader Cam Broten said he doesn't have an ideological opposition to the P3 model in education.

But decisions about building schools need to be cost-effective, fill the right need and be done in a timely way, he said.

"We can look at the bundling approach when it was pursued in Alberta, which caused many problems for schools not actually meeting the local needs within the community with respect to being customized in order to have community groups access," Broten said.

"Also in terms of relocatables or portables being added on or taken away from the schools, so there's some real restrictions in that context with bundling," said Broten.

"We know that we need new schools, the question is how do we do this in the best possible way."

— By Jennifer Graham in Regina