AS COALITION members began to discuss the money that the state would spend on schools for next year as part of the 2004 budget, schools from around the country asked the cabinet to release more funds to cover the sector's current massive debts.
Schools all over Slovakia have been filing reports on the money they owe to energy suppliers, with the bills amounting to nearly Sk300 million (€7.2 million). Facing severe shortages of cash, some schools have already announced that their doors will be shut to students and pupils by the end of December, as an elementary school in the Bratislava suburb of Vajnory plans.
Others have announced plans to merge several schools into one or to shut down others for good, such as in the capital's district of Petržalka, where municipal MPs already voted to shut down five elementary schools as of September 2004. This decision was the result of more than financial reasons, Veronika Redechová, deputy head of the education department of the Petržalka municipal office, said to The Slovak Spectator.
The decision was also driven by what local officials said was a falling number of pupils, which has caused the capacity of many of the schools to remain unused, making the maintenance of the district's 17 schools redundant.
But reports of schools entering an attenuation regime, in which lessons are shortened or children are granted extra days off, have come from areas such as Košice and Púchov. In the Trenčín greater territorial unit (VÚC), on the other hand, local officials agreed that eight secondary schools would be merged to four, thus saving some money on electricity, heating, and maintenance staff.
Education Minister Martin Fronc has said that the situation in many Slovak schools needs to be addressed.
The ruling coalition agreed on December 1 that Fronc and Finance Minister Ivan Mikloš would reach a compromise on the money the cabinet can still send to schools so that they can pay their creditors.
"As far as the elimination of this year's debts, the education and finance ministries are in discussion. We have to analyse realistic and objective demands [from schools]. I will not comment at this point on the actual sum," Fronc told The Slovak Spectator on December 2."
"It would be good if these debts were settled as soon as possible to make sure that schools aren't in debt in the new year when the school reform starts," Michal Sýkora, head of the Association of Slovak Towns and Cities said to the Slovak daily Pravda.
In the middle of 2003, municipalities officially took over school administration from the state as part of the public administration reform. Now, as of the new year, a school reform is to take effect. While schools have until now received money from the state budget based on their number of classes, the reform will see schools receiving money per pupil.
Minister Fronc said that he expected that "some schools would merge" under the new law on the financing of the regional educational institutions.
"The goal of the law is, among other issues, to more effectively use money from the state budget," Fronc said.
The actual sum, called the pupil standard, has yet to be agreed upon. It is believed that it will be between Sk24,000 (€586) and Sk33,000 (€805) per pupil per year, with slight variations depending on the size of individual schools in terms of number of pupils. Among the criteria that will be taken into consideration will be climatic conditions to favour schools in colder regions that spend more on heating.
Minister Fronc said that, compared to last year, the regional educational institutions would receive Sk2.1 billion (€51.24 million) more and that Sk1.5 billion (€36.60 million) of this money represented the increase that would be specifically aimed at covering the operation of schools, including energy and maintenance payments.
According to the draft state budget for 2004, the country's eight regional VÚCs will receive Sk8.9 billion (€217.19 million) for the municipalities' expenditures related to the administration of schools.
The Finance Ministry's draft 2004 budget says that this money is only a preliminary sum "that will later be adjusted based on the implementation of the law on financing" of regional schools that would set funding details, including the pupil standard.
"At this point, an increased budget for the educational sector can only be reached in parliament. There are intense negotiations regarding the final draft of the state budget," Fronc said.
At a press conference on December 2, representatives of Slovakia's school unions demanded that the budget for schools, including universities, be increased by Sk800 million (€19.52 million) to a total of Sk1.5 billion (€36.60 million).
"This is based on the price increases [mainly for energy] announced by the cabinet. So the most elementary problems of schools would be taken care of," argued head of the unions, Ján Gašperan.
However, many politicians, such as MP Eva Rusnáková from the ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union, dubbed the demand unrealistic.
"The coalition will discuss [a possible increase of] Sk300 million (€7.32 million). But the sum demanded by the school unions is overblown," the MP said to the Slovak daily Pravda on December 3.
8. Dec 2003 at 0:00 | Martina Pisárová