SOME schools in the Banská Bystrica region might not be able to pay for new equipment from EU funds after the regional government cut its support for EU projects. The Education Ministry says students will be the ones who suffer in the end, while some suggest that the anti-EU sentiments of the new regional governor are behind the changes.

The office of the Banská Bystrica Self-Governing Region (BBSK) surprised schools which submitted projects for modernisation of education with an announcement that it would not co-finance their projects, mainly paid for with EU structural funds within the operational programme Education - Modern School.

The Education Ministry estimated the overall costs of the projects in the Banská Bystrica region at €5.5 million, while the BBSK was supposed to contribute about €270,000. BBSK is, as of late 2013, led by Governor Marian Kotleba, a far-right politician.

Education Ministry spokesman Michal Kaliňák confirmed in an official statement that €40 million from EU funds were assigned for projects in 180 secondary schools around Slovakia, to support their activities towards modernisation of the education process.

“But Banská Bystrica Region wants to punish the schools for their success,” Kaliňák wrote in a press release from February 7. He admitted that the decision of the self-governing body must be respected, but “the negative impact which in the end harms the students, parents and schools, should not be overlooked”.

The Education Ministry stresses “that inconsiderate steps of the Banská Bystrica Self-Governing Region will not threaten the drawing of EU funds as a whole, but in reality they will harm 22 schools which were successful with their projects, disappoint 14 schools which might get financial aid for the first time, slow the development of vocational training in 10 secondary schools and, in the end, punish teachers, students and their parents for all this”.

Most of the projects were designed to procure software, interactive boards, computers and other educational tools. Kaliňák noted that it is paradoxical that the regional government is not willing to support these projects given the fact that the main problems of the regional schools defined in the Regional Strategy of the Development of Education and Training in BBSK are outdated equipment and a lack of teaching tools.

Different numbers

The Education Ministry reported that 31 schools in Banská Bystrica Region were successful with their projects, with 22 of them being administered by the region (and expecting the regional government to contribute to the modernisation projects), 14 of which are to receive financial aid from the EU for the first time.

The office of the BBSK was quick to react, accusing the Education Ministry of participating in what they called a campaign against the regional government.

BBSK spokesman Miroslav Belička called the ministry’s press release “tendentious” and “amateurish”, and noted that the ministry was mistaken in classifying the boarding vocational school in Valaská as among the schools administered by the regional government, when in fact it is administered by the Banská Bystrica district office.

Belička denied that 22 schools suffered damage in not being able to realise their projects and explained that five of the schools have secured the co-financing even before they filed their projects, while the other 14 were able to find sources for co-financing from their own income, sponsors and grants.

“Of the overall number of 22 schools only three schools that are budgetary organisations of the BBSK do not have the co-financing secured,” Belička wrote in the reaction published on the regional office’s website, and claimed that if the regional government co-financed their projects it would violate budgetary laws.

In an open letter to Kaliňák on February 12, Belička alleged that most of the 22 successful projects were probably approved illegitimately, because the 5 percent of the costs that were to be provided by the BBSK were pledged without regional council approval. Additionally, Belička alleges that under the previous regional governor, Vladimír Maňka, the money that was assigned to co-finance the projects was not originally meant for this purpose.

Belička asked the Education Ministry to explain why it approved the projects despite this, and requested information over whether similar mistakes happened in the other seven regions.

In response, ministry officials accused BBSK of ignoring the generally recognised facts that have been in use for some seven years related to the process of granting finances from EU funds to projects. The ministry’s agency for structural funds (ASFEU) disputed the claim that approving financial assistance to schools in Banská Bystrica Region was illegitimate and insisted it followed the proper procedures for the seven other regions as well, Kaliňák wrote on February 13.

What’s next?

“If these schools don’t get help with co-financing from their administrator and cannot get resources in another way, we will open the repository of projects and probably support other secondary schools in other self-governing regions,” said Marián Kostolányi, general director of the ASFEU.

Some schools have in the meantime found the necessary resources from parents or sponsors. Most headmasters contacted by the Sme daily declined to comment.

“What will be the fate of our project?” one of the headmasters said. “We don’t want to lose the money. We are thinking about where to get the money. Either from sponsors, from grants or even from the parents, but that’s going to be hard.”

Some headmasters have admitted they still see some hope in the regional councillors, who might still convince the regional governor to change his mind and support the projects.

Anti-EU bias

Meanwhile, observers of the Slovak political scene suggest that the regional government’s reluctance to contribute to the EU-funded projects might stem from Kotleba’s anti-EU views.

Kotleba expressed such views in a recent (January 30) letter to the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. In the letter, Kotleba called on Yanukovych to save Ukraine while he still has time, calling NATO a terrorist organisation that is only trying to shift its borders closer to Russia, and accusing the EU of only seeking new markets.

“As a citizen of an EU member state I can say with all responsibility that opening up to the EU will not bring anything good to the Ukrainian people,” Kotleba wrote in his letter, adding that Ukraine will only become “yet another huge market” where there will be no room for Ukrainian products. He also describes how Slovakia in his view lost its independence when it joined the EU, and now under the threat of sanctions has to follow “nonsense directives, orders and other rules that Brussels dictates to us”.