Why are so many schools so ‘sick’?
by Don Cayo


I was listening with just half an ear to a radio commentary on the sick state of school buildings, which in turn are making teachers and students sick. Only the last line caught my full attention. It was a throw-away — a snide aside, peripheral to the argument. It said, in effect, brace yourself for worse in future because the private sector is building all the new schools now. And who knows, the commentator intoned, what corners those guys will cut?

That concern, based on nothing but suspicion and innuendo, struck me as odd.

I work in a 113-year-old building — one that’s charming, functional and well kept. I like it. We have to move out, however. The firm that owns it is growing and needs the space. So our little think-tank is leasing much newer quarters in a downtown Halifax building — one a mere 71 years old. Long-term tenants there tell me that it, too, is a good place to work.

Meanwhile, the sick schools making headlines in both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are new kids on the block; most of them have been around perhaps half a century, if that. So how come so many older buildings remain healthy, yet some younger ones do not? Why, in the words of Chronicle-Herald letter writer Love Rawding, does it seem to be just schools that get sick? “Why not other civic buildings, retail stores, restaurants, factories, and industrial warehouses? Why not our own homes?”

Why, indeed?

Well, to be fair, it isn’t just schools. The sick building syndrome has affected a wide range of building types, including middle-aged commercial ones in some North American cities. But, in this region at least, schools seem to be far more vulnerable than other types of buildings. And structurally sound business buildings and private homes of most any type are more frequently fixed than abandoned when they face serious problems.

So it is fair, I think, to consider what a market economist might say about sick schools. It you look at the question — the probability that a building will be well built and well maintained — from the perspective of getting the incentives right, a private owner is less likely to cut corners than a public one.

The incentive for a private owner to do it right is simple to understand. A good building is worth more than a bad one. An investor’s retirement income is tied to the long-term value of the asset.

What about the “public” builder — the politician and the bureaucrat who commission projects great and small? Their incentive is to be seen to be doing something; to fill a demand, or pander to a clamour; to instantly gratify wants or needs. Simple math tells you that every corner cut on quality means a little more quantity. Defects, not likely to manifest themselves for at least a few years, will be somebody else’s problem, a matter for a future budget. The public builders’ retirement security is, good building or bad, guaranteed by a fat pension that varies not one iota according to performance on the job.

If you think some private sector folks may be venal and sly when they can get away with it — and I do believe that can happen, though by no means all the time — consider the matter of incentives here, too. It is when a contractor is building something that will be owned by government that the temptation is greatest to skimp on quality. If the builder is also the owner, it makes no sense to save a buck today and risk thousands in repairs or devalued assets a few years down the road.

Thus we get private buildings that comfortably house people like me for decade after decade. And thus we get rows of crummy houses on reserves instead of fewer good ones. We get highways that need resurfacing long before a better road’s day is done. And we get, perhaps, sick schools.

I do not believe that every politician and bureaucrat deliberately cuts corners on standards, nor that every contractor on a public job is skimming. But people are people; odds are odds.

And, when it comes to maintenance to protect the value of property, there is no question in my mind that governments at all levels cut corners in their lust to cut spending. Our society is amassing a huge hidden deficit — liability for work left undone that will cost far more to deal with as these problems worsen.

All of which makes me receptive to the idea of public-private partnerships that governments are beginning to explore. Some early problems, particularly in New Brunswick, forewarn they are no panacea — no automatic cure for complex problems of providing public goods. But, by the yardstick of getting the incentives right, they’re better than what we’ve been doing.

If I were a radio commentator fond of ending with snide asides, I’d point out that the other option is to let politicians and bureaucrats continue to build things like schools and roads. And who knows what corners those guys will cut?