Thursday, 24 November 2016
Commencement Matters (Resumed)
Schools Building Projects
I will cut right to the chase as I explained earlier. Three years ago the previous Government ensured that a commitment was made in the five year schools' capital programme to build a new school at Whitecross national school in Julianstown. The Minister of State will be aware that the Louth and east Meath areas are one of the fastest growing areas in the country. The demographics are such that the schools' capital programme initiated by the then Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn, ensured that 10% of all of the new school projects in the State would be developed in that area. Apart from the new school developments, objectively, "ancient schools" and I use that term advisedly, ancient schools such as Whitecross national school in Julianstown needed to be replaced entirely.
The conditions at Whitecross national school are appalling, they are deplorable. Teachers battle to teach in prefabricated classrooms that are too hot in the summer and far too cold in the winter. Mould appears on the ceilings and on the walls. There have been rodent infestations with all of the related health and safety risks. There is no hot water in the bathroom for children to wash their hands after using the toilets. The cold water is far too cold for people to safety put their hands under the tap. To put it bluntly, the school should probably be condemned.
It is long past time that the new building was commenced and that the Department indicated a timeline for the commencement and completion of the work. The time for excuses has long past. The school is not fit for purpose. In my opinion - and I am not prone to exaggeration - this is a health and safety nightmare, an accident waiting to happen. The patience and tolerance of pupils, teachers and staff has worn extremely thin, particularly in recent months. All they want for Christmas, as one young person told me, is their new school. Children have told me they would forego their toys if it was a case that a new school would be developed soon. We secured the resources for the new school in 2013-14 under the then capital programme. The then Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, announced a new capital programme last year. A significant number of new schools have been built in the area in recent times that, in a sense, leapfrogged Whitecross national school. It is high time that the bureaucratic foot dragging that is delaying this project is brought to an end.
When will the project commence? What is the timeline for the commencement and completion of the project and when does the Minister envisage that children from Julianstown in east Meath will be taught in a building that they, the staff and the parents deserve?
I thank Senator Nash for raising the matter. It provides me with an opportunity to go through a few points with him. I know Senator Nash and if he says the school is in that state, I believe him.
The brief for the major building project for Whitecross national school is to provide a refurbishment and an extension on the existing site to cater for a 16 classroom school. The staffing allocation for Whitecross national school is currently a principal with 16 mainstream teachers. Enrolments in September 2011 stood at 410 pupils. The enrolments in September 2015 stood at 432 which shows an incremental growth of 5%.
The design team was appointed in March 2011 with a brief to provide the extension and refurbishment work on a phased basis with a partial decant of classrooms on the existing site. The project was included in the five-year construction programme 2012-16 and was scheduled therein to commence construction in 2014.
Planning permission was granted in January 2014. Since then the board of management and its design team have presented a number of proposals to the Department to change the brief to one which involves a single decant and a single phase delivery during construction. This has led to significant delays in the progression of the project. The most recent decant option, which included the provision of significant levels of new temporary accommodation on site, involved an additional cost for the project in the region of €2 million - an increase in the overall cost of the project of around 40%.
The project has reached an advanced stage of architectural planning, stage 2b, which involves securing all statutory approvals and the preparation of tender documents. All statutory approvals have been secured. However, the difficulty is that the additional €2 million cost for the project arising from the board of management's single phase decant and construction proposal raised serious questions as to the viability of the project.
The board of management and the design team were invited to a meeting with the Department in order to resolve all outstanding issues and enable stage 2b to be completed. That meeting was held on 11 November 2016 and agreement was reached in regard to the scaling back of the temporary accommodation costs, which should now allow the project to progress to the completion of the design stages. I understand that the design team is working to complete the stage 2b report for submission to the Department in the coming months. When the submission has been reviewed, the Department will revert to the school regarding the further progression of the project at the time.
If there are further difficulties, there would be no problem with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, meeting Senator Nash to discuss the project.Progress has been made, if not to the complete satisfaction of the Senator. A very good meeting took place with the project team from the school and there is agreement to move forward. Something significant will happen. I have been told to say that if the Senator requires a further meeting with the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, and me, we would be delighted to meet him.
I thank the Minister of State for bringing clarity to this matter. I would be happy to lead a delegation of parents, teachers and members of the school's board of management to meet the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, or the Minister of State. One of the problems I have discerned from the process is a lack of communication, poor communication or miscommunications along the way. It is a complex process. The Minister of State can imagine the frustration on the part of parents seeing a considerable number of schools in the area being built while the school they fought hard to secure a number of years ago under the schools capital programme has been repeatedly long fingered and delayed.
We were aware that there were issues several years ago with proposals around decanting children from the school to an alternative location in Drogheda. The Department expressed concern about logistical arrangements to allow it to happen. It may have delayed proceedings regarding reaching this point in the project. It is a complex and difficult site. We all want the school to be built, in the interests of the staff, pupils and teachers.
Julianstown school was once a very small, rural school. However, given that the area is one of the fastest-growing in the State, there has been a considerable population increase in the area, with new housing developments. Given the number of young couples in the area, the demographic profile is set to increase during the next few years. We need the school to be built as soon as possible. I appreciate the Minister of State's intervention and I will take up the opportunity to meet him, the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton and relevant Department officials to expedite this necessary project. It is very much appreciated.
The problem was the extra €2 million, which increased the cost by 40%. The board of management and design team had a very forward-reaching meeting with the Minister and the Department on 11 November and there is an agreement to scale down. I am confident some arrangement and agreement will be made. The agreement was to scale back on the temporary accommodation, which will reduce the cost. I am confident that some arrangement can be reached that will be satisfactory to the board of management, the Senator and the pupils and families.
The school and the principal expressed concerns about the cost of the prefabricated accommodation and I am pleased that an agreement appears to have been reached to scale it back, and that it can be progressed as soon as possible.