MANY hands are out for school funding, but who will pay?
The country's schools, which until now have been administered by the state, will be transferred to lower governments on June 1 in line with a drive to decentralise power in Slovakia.
However, unless the government diverts privatisation revenues to cover almost Sk1 billion in accumulated school operating debt, and unless more public money is found to pay for a promised 30 per cent pay rise for teachers, the regions will inherit a school system critically short of cash and morale.
"We have warned the government of these facts in advance, but we are still worried they will not fulfill their promises," said Ján Gašperan, head of the Union of Education System Employees in Slovakia.
Education Minister Peter Ponický explained that the goal of the transition was to increase the efficiency of schools, which as of June 1 will be funded and controlled by local governments, not the Education Ministry and its regional offices as before.
"This change should give regional parliaments the power to solve problems more efficiently than the anonymous state," he said.
But without money, education professionals say, the new powers will mean little.
Gašperan said the debts of secondary and elementary schools had increased by another Sk300 million this year after reaching Sk510 million at the end of 2001.
While the regions want the debts to be removed before the transition process is launched, it is not clear where the money will come from.
Ponický proposed the money could come from the cabinet's cancelled Govnet project, for which Sk700 million was laid aside to fund an information system.
However, as the cabinet has already said the Govnet finances will be cut to relieve a worrying fiscal deficit, Gašperan said he feared the government would not pay down school debts before the transition occurred.
"We have now proposed that some money from the privatisation of [gas utility] SPP could be allocated for debt removal. This is a very serious problem, and the schools should emerge from transition without debts," said Gašperan.
Martina Kubánová from the Slovak Governance Institute explained that the debt had arisen from a government decision to reduce school funding seven years ago.
"In 1995 there was a steep reduction in government funding for schools, creating school debts for utilities that they never managed to get rid of," she said.
But perhaps a more serious problem is linked to teacher salaries, which are now among the lowest in the national economy and have been blamed for poor morale on school staffs and an increasing problem in attracting and keeping talented educators.
A Public Service Law that took effect April 1 changed wage brackets for education system employees in preparation for an announced wage increase. Then-Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik promised that "teachers' wages will increase by 30 per cent from the beginning of April."
However, the cabinet omitted to secure funding for the wage rises, meaning that many school principals have been unable to boost salaries.
Although the government has promised to provide Sk800 million to cover wage increases by the end of May, teachers' unions say the money is insufficient.
"Even after the government distributes the money, another Sk660 million will be needed. According to our calculations, secondary and elementary schools will be short Sk400 million, universities Sk180 million and other institutions in the system will lack Sk80 million," said Gašperan.
"Schools should have implemented the new system at the beginning of April, but school directors are still lacking the resources in their budgets," he added, saying the money could finally arrive in September after a government study of school wages.
A final hurdle in the path of decentralisation is holes in the related laws, primarily confusion over who will perform what functions.
Gašperan said that that economic management of schools is now provided by district state offices, but that after some schools come under municipal councils, "there will be nobody to do this."
Jozef Mrva from the Association of Slovak Towns and Cities added that "the law does not specify the tools, powers and the executive bodies who will perform many related tasks."
"The mayors of many Slovak towns still don't feel they have the legal tools they need to make the change work," said Kubánová.
Despite the chaos, however, Gašperan said he was confident the bugs could be worked out.
"The transition from government administration to regional and local administration is a big change. But once the financial problems are solved, schools will continue to function without any problems," he said.