Dáil debates

Wednesday, 8 February 2006

Adjournment Debate.

Schools Building Projects.

9:00 pm

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Westmeath, Labour)
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I wish to share time with Deputy Paul McGrath.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for permitting me to raise on the Adjournment the important issue of Dysart national school. A brief history of the situation is as follows. The school was approved for a grant of €350,000, the maximum granted under the 2004 small schools initiative, to construct a new school to service a large geographical area. The old school in Dysart was condemned as far back as 1999 — both I and Deputy Paul McGrath raised the issue many years ago — thus the need for this school to progress without further procrastination or delay.

The awarding of the grant under the scheme was vigorously and enthusiastically embraced by the board of management and, initially, two estimates were sought and they amounted to €350,000 to €390,000. By the time the tender was submitted in early January 2005, the best tender was €460,000 and together with professional fees the total cost for the erection of new modern school which would meet the needs of the young pupils attending the school and the staff, together with the ancillary facilities required, was in the order of €500,000.

Obviously, when the grant of €350,000 is taken into account, this leaves a shortfall of €150,000 which, in essence, is too onerous a burden for a small community to bear. While the small schools initiative may not have intended to leave schools with significant fundraising needs, that is the situation in which this small community of Dysart finds itself.

The planning guidelines for primary schools issued by the Minister's Department clearly indicated that the board of management was not free to tailor the scope of capital works despite what some of the officials state. Indeed, on the contrary, the board of management in Dysart felt constrained to work within those guidelines. As a result, the school designed is based on a two classroom school plan produced by the Department's architects.

Despite assertions by the Department to the contrary, there was no statement specifying three classrooms — its representative was told that approval was to build a two teacher unit. On 22 March 2005, an official from the Department was presented with a copy of the plans with a written request to meet the board of management. Further requests for meetings were submitted on 25 April 2005 and 15 September 2005 and both I and Deputy Paul McGrath raised the matter in the House subsequently.

It should be noted that in July 2005, €245,000, or approximately 70% of the original grant, was released to the school which would surely indicate approval and sanction for the two classroom school as planned. The matter has been through the appeals process. Both I and Deputy Paul McGrath tried very hard to get a positive result. We were extremely disappointed with the nature and tenor of the reply which referred the matter back to the school planning section. It was stated that the building project was unlikely to meet the long-term accommodation needs. Ultimately, the appeals board decided the school did not warrant additional funding to everybody's great surprise.

The Minister is aware that of the €150,000 shortfall, a significant amount of it arises as a result of the need for the school board to comply with the planning conditions set down by the planning authority. I understand a copy of the consultant engineer's assessment of the additional costs associated with that have been furnished to the Department.

The Minister should give the additional money required to deal with the extra costs which are clearly outside the control of the school authorities and were not set down by them. The accepted tender price to erect the school represents exceedingly good value. It is of paramount importance that the additional grant aid of €150,000 is provided to this small community.

On 24 November, the school met the Department but it received a point blank refusal. The delays have forced the children and teachers of Dysart to endure another year in an unfit building which was condemned as long ago as 1999. In January this year, the boys' toilet had to be closed due to a leaking roof so boys and girls must now share one toilet. The roof is also leaking rain water into the corridor on top of the ESB fuse box area.

Time is of the essence. If there is a lot of money to give out and if we are facilitating all sorts of developments and initiatives, surely a school is the first place to start and €150,000 is small bread to ensure comforts for teachers and pupils in this area.

Paul McGrath (Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank my colleague, Deputy Penrose, for sharing time. This is a small rural community which is at a crossroads. There is some housing development in the area. This school has been condemned for some time. Initially, the old school was to be renovated but that proved impractical and not worthwhile. Plans were approved by the Department for a new school and expenditure appeared to be approved by it because no response was received from it. A contractor was brought on site and the school is half built. Since the local community will not be able to meet the additional requirement of €150,000, work had to stop. Will we leave it as it is? Will it be another white elephant like the hospital in Mullingar and several others? Let us make progress on the school and let common sense prevail.

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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It is nice to see co-operation between the two Deputies opposite. Perhaps it is a sign of things to come.

Photo of Willie PenroseWillie Penrose (Westmeath, Labour)
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We always co-operate in the interests of our constituency.

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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We all have that in common. I thank the Deputies for affording me the opportunity to outline the position of the Department of Education and Science with regard to the allocation of funding for school building projects and, in particular, the project at Dysart national school, Mullingar. Dysart national school is accommodated in classrooms in a building which was built in 1941. It has an enrolment of approximately 38 pupils and a staffing of a principal teacher and one assistant teacher.

The Department of Education and Science is moving towards a model of devolving funding, responsibility and authority, as appropriate, for building projects directly to school management authorities. Devolving of funding to school management authorities allows them to have control of their projects, assists in moving projects more quickly to tender and construction and can deliver better value for money.

This devolved initiative was originally introduced on a pilot basis for 20 schools in the 2003 school building programme and due to the positive feedback from schools was extended in the school building programmes of 2004 and again last year. While appropriate for many schools, the Department is aware that the devolved initiative is not necessarily suitable for all national schools seeking to refurbish their school building or to build new accommodation. It is not the intention of the scheme to leave schools with massive fundraising requirements. Rather, the level of funding should determine the scope of works undertaken. However, in some cases, the school site or building can be problematic while in others, the extent of the required work is too extensive for the funding available under the initiative.

In such situations, schools have a number of choices. They can reduce the scope of intended works, fundraise to cover the shortfall or withdraw from the scheme and be considered for inclusion in the mainstream school building programme in line with the project's priority band rating. This school was offered a grant of €350,000 under the devolved initiative in 2004 to provide new accommodation. The board of management accepted the grant offered and proceeded with the architectural planning of the project.

The school has received planning permission for a new school building subject to a number of conditions. Construction work on the new school started during the summer of 2005. It is clear from the information supplied by the school to officials in the Department of Education and Science that the grant of €350,000 will not be sufficient to construct the building as designed. Officials from the Department met the school authorities on 24 November 2005 to discuss this difficulty. An appeal for additional funding was considered by the appeals board and it is satisfied that under the terms of the scheme, the school does not warrant additional funding. The board of management has been informed of the decision.

Paul McGrath (Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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That is disappointing.

Photo of Seán PowerSeán Power (Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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I again thank the Deputy for outlining the current position to the House. I listened attentively to the issues raised by both Deputies and I will communicate that message to the Minister for Education and Science who, unfortunately, cannot be present this evening.