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UNDERFUNDING HAS LED TO HUGE DEBTS IN THE UNREFORMED EDUCATION SECTOR, UNIONS SAY

Teachers prepare to strike again

TEACHERS' unions are to stage their second strike in the last month over the funding of schools, and threaten that if the cabinet does not address the sector's accumulating problems, more protests will follow at the start of the next school year in September.
At the end of May, thousands of teachers went on strike in dozens of towns around the country, in protest at what they see as a financial crisis in the sector. They say underfunding has left the majority of the country's schools with debts of hundreds of thousands of crowns, and some are unable to pay their electricity and water bills.
State officials admit that since the fall of communism, no cabinet has had the courage to carry out reforms in the sector, but they also say that revamping the system would probably result in a reduction in the number of schools. According to officials from the Education Ministry, the number of schoolchildren is falling, and many schools are becoming superfluous and financially unsustainable as a result.

TEACHERS' unions are to stage their second strike in the last month over the funding of schools, and threaten that if the cabinet does not address the sector's accumulating problems, more protests will follow at the start of the next school year in September.

At the end of May, thousands of teachers went on strike in dozens of towns around the country, in protest at what they see as a financial crisis in the sector. They say underfunding has left the majority of the country's schools with debts of hundreds of thousands of crowns, and some are unable to pay their electricity and water bills.

State officials admit that since the fall of communism, no cabinet has had the courage to carry out reforms in the sector, but they also say that revamping the system would probably result in a reduction in the number of schools. According to officials from the Education Ministry, the number of schoolchildren is falling, and many schools are becoming superfluous and financially unsustainable as a result.

Apart from drawing attention to the lack of funds for hot water, heating, and electricity at schools, teachers also want to point out that they are among the worst-paid professionals in Slovakia. Average monthly wages in Slovakia are currently at about Sk14,000 (€340), but teachers get paid only Sk11,000 (€270).

According to Ján Gašperan, head of the teachers' unions, the date for the upcoming strike is yet to be set, but it will be sometime before the current school year finishes at the end of June.

Several school principals told The Slovak Spectator that schools are forced to run into debt because money from the state is not enough to maintain smooth operations, and often arrives late.

When the situation becomes unbearable and creditors threaten to withdraw their services, the cabinet usually approves additional money for the schools in question, so that they can pay their most urgent bills. However, new debts start accumulating soon afterwards.

The cabinet recently approved a Sk300 million (€7.3 million) injection into the education sector, after many schools warned they would not be able to finish this school year without children doing without electricity and hot water.

On June 9, Ladislav Csillaghy, the principal of the Captain J. Nálepka elementary school in the western Slovak town of Stupava, told The Slovak Spectator: "My school has debts of nearly Sk400,000 (€9,800). With the money coming in [from the government] I can pay those debts, but then I will go into debt again."

The principal of the Ján Komenský elementary school in the eastern Slovak town of Revúca, Ivan Smerek, is in a similar position.

"We have no money to cover operational costs. We are expecting the [cabinet] funding to arrive in the next few days, and then we will pay the old debts, but nobody knows what will happen in the next school year. Of course, we'll have to turn on the heating in the autumn."

State officials have admitted that a mistake was made when this year's budget was prepared.

"The deficit came about because we expected a smaller increase in energy prices," Deputy Education Minister František Tóth said in a recent interview with the Slovak daily Národná obroda.

In the recently approved 2004 budget, the Finance Ministry foresaw a preliminary increase in schools' operational costs of nearly Sk680 million (€16.5 million), reaching Sk3.7 billion (€89 million). Schools say it is not enough.

The Education Ministry is preparing an analysis of risks to the sector associated with the proposed 2004 state budget, and unions hope the ministry will manage to negotiate an increase in funds.

However, Education Minister Martin Fronc recently said that the education system in Slovakia needs radical reforms, and schools may have to shut down.

A large part of the responsibility for the reforms, however, will rest on the shoulders of municipalities rather than bureaucrats in Bratislava. As part of the ongoing reforms to public administration, the state has transferred some rights and duties previously in the hands of central government to the municipalities.

According to Tóth, there should be fewer schools because the number of pupils has been decreasing steadily for the last decade. Paradoxically, the number of schools has risen and the number of teachers has grown by 16 percent in the same period.

Tóth said that while in 1989 Slovakia had 2,300 elementary schools, with 725,000 pupils and 36,000 teachers, 11 years later, in 2000, there were 2,459 elementary schools, with 42,000 teachers instructing 650,000 pupils.

Csillaghy of the elementary school in Stupava said that the potential reduction in the number of schools was "the only point in which I agree with the deputy minister", because he deemed spending money on the operation of small schools ineffective.

"I think some schools will be shut down. If a village or town wants to keep a school even if there are too few pupils, then they will have to co-finance it," he said.

Teachers said the state should not forget that they would like to see their wages go up by more than the rate of inflation.

"We are at the tail end of the [national] wages charts," Csillaghy said.

His colleague in Revúca, Principal Smerek, added: "Wages are not our biggest problem but it would be nice if some increase took place. In general, however, we'd be happy if we had smooth-running schools, and didn't have to worry about not being able to pay the next bill.

"I hope the cabinet and the unions can agree on something. So far, however, it seems that cabinet efforts to help the education sector remain on paper [as plans, rather than deeds]."

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