Wednesday, 6 December 2017
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
32. To ask the Minister for Education and Skills his views on whether it is acceptable that seven members of the board of a school (details supplied) had to go to court in order to protect the school's playing pitches and the public investment in the school; the actions he will take in regard to same; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [52201/17]
I have raised with the Minister on several occasions, including by way of meeting, the fate of the playing pitches at Clonkeen College. As the Minister is aware, the Christian Brothers are planning to sell 7.5 acres of land used as playing pitches by Clonkeen College. Seven members of the board of management have been forced to take High Court proceedings to prevent this sale, which will rob the current 500 students and future generations of students of playing fields, from proceeding. Will the Minister help to secure the future of these pitches or will he take a hands-off attitude and force the board of management members to take very expensive legal proceedings, with uncertain outcomes, to save them?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell O'Connor, organised the deputation of which Deputy Boyd Barrett was a member. The Deputy and I have had frequent conversations about the issue since.
The difficulty is that the fields in question are owned by the Congregation of Christian Brothers. The decision by the Congregation of Christian Brothers, which is a private entity, to dispose of land owned by the congregation is a matter for it.
My Department understands that the board of management or members of the board of management are taking legal proceedings against the Congregation of Christian Brothers relating to the sale of the fields. My Department has no role in such proceedings.
I wish to clarify for the Deputy that the Congregation of the Christian Brothers wrote to my Department in early May in regard to the disposal of part of the lands at Clonkeen College and it stated that this disposal was the subject of contractual arrangements between the congregation and a builder. The Brothers indicated that 7.5 acres of land currently licensed to Clonkeen College, together with the Edmund Rice School Trust, ERST, head offices, which borders Clonkeen College, are involved in the sale.
I have tabled several parliamentary questions to the Minister on this issue. In the most recent parliamentary question I asked the Minister for the details of the so-called binding agreement referenced by the Christian Brothers and recycled by him in various responses. The Minister's response was that the Department has not seen the contacts for sale. In regard to the case being taken to the courts, the details of which I cannot comment on, the Christian Brothers have indicated that this will delay the sale which suggests there is no binding contract and the sale is not complete. There is time to intervene. The members of the board of management and the wider Clonkeen College community cannot afford to raise the type of money necessary to take a case to the High Court to secure these pitches. What they and I want to know is how the Minister can say a school in which there has been massive public investment is not his business but is a private matter for the Christian Brothers. It is bizarre that facilities in which there has been major public investment are going to be substantially degraded to the detriment of 570 students.
The congregation has informed the Department that the lands concerned have been sold, that it has signed and exchanged legally binding contracts with the purchasers and that it cannot reverse this transaction. If a legal challenge is made to those contracts, which like the Deputy I am not in a position to comment on, it will be for the courts to determine the matter. Where my Department invests in property, there is a lean on those properties to ensure they are used for the educational purpose. This is true of anything the State has invested in these properties and they are protected. In this instance, we are speaking about land adjacent to Clonkeen College which has been in the use of students. The Christian Brothers as the legal owners of that land have the right to dispose of it. That is the legal position that I cannot alter.
The Minister could alter it, for example, by subjecting it to compulsory purchase order. When I previously suggested this to the Minister his response was that the Department cannot do that but it can and does do so by asking local authorities to compulsorily purchase land for school building. I would suggest that the Minister do that in this instance and thus save the board of management and the wider Clonkeen College community the hardship of having to raise vast amounts of money to take a case to the High Court to save these pitches. The Department has invested in these pitches. They were upgraded and fenced with departmental funding. The sale of this land will impact on the capacity of the school to deliver recreational and sports facilities which matter. This provision is not an optional extra in education: it is critical in the context of the proper development of young people and in terms of tackling obesity by encouraging healthy exercise and so on. For these pitches to be sold and the Minister to stand idly by is unconscionable in terms of his responsibilities as Minister for Education and Skills for the education of these young people.
The patron, which in this case is ERST, has, of course, the responsibility to provide for the students in the school. It is making provision and I understand the Christian Brothers have made arrangements for the transfer of some of the land. However, they own other land which they have made a decision to dispose of. I am not in a position to purchase it from them or to block the sale. This is a decision they have made and we have no role in the proceedings being taken by an entity to challenge the sale. I regret that this is the situation and that I cannot give the Deputy more reassurance.