Education Ministry needs $5 billion to complete 161 schools

The Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry will need over $5 bil­lion to com­plete 161 schools whose con­struc­tion are still in­com­plete - plus it al­so needs whistle­blow­er law and poli­cies to pre­vent nepo­tism in agen­cies un­der its purview.

This in­for­ma­tion was con­firmed by Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry act­ing per­ma­nent sec­re­tary Kurt Mey­er yes­ter­day when min­istry of­fi­cials ap­peared be­fore a Par­lia­ment Pub­lic Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Ap­pro­pri­a­tion com­mit­tee. The com­mit­tee ex­am­ined min­istry over­sight in agen­cies un­der its purview and pri­vate sec­ondary school fund­ing.

“The bot­tom line (on com­plet­ing the 161 in­com­plete schools) is mon­ey,” Mey­er told the com­mit­tee.

The cri­te­ria to de­ter­mine which schools get fund­ing for com­ple­tion is the ex­tent of their con­struc­tion. If a school is 99 per cent ready, it will be com­plet­ed ahead of one that’s 98 per cent done, he said. He said schools are in dif­fer­ent stages of con­struc­tion: some con­trac­tors are still on site, oth­ers have aban­doned sites and these have been tak­en over by res­i­dents, while oth­er res­i­dents are pro­tect­ing oth­er aban­doned sites.

Mey­er said there are dif­fi­cul­ties al­though the min­istry se­cures sites and “it’s ex­treme­ly chal­leng­ing.” In cas­es of con­trac­tors aban­don­ing sites but not hand­ing them over, he said the min­istry is ne­go­ti­at­ing with a num­ber of them cur­rent­ly.

“We made sig­nif­i­cant pay­ments re­cent­ly and we’re cur­rent­ly try­ing to get as many sites as we can back on­line,” Mey­er said.

Mey­er said the huge Au­gust 2018 earth­quake dam­aged “quite a num­ber” of ex­ist­ing schools and a cou­ple are a “to­tal loss.” Apart from re­build­ing these, he said fo­cus is on­ly on re­pair­ing.

JSC mem­ber Wade Mark queried the Ed­u­ca­tion Fa­cil­i­ties Com­pa­ny Ltd’s work on in­com­plete projects, in­clud­ing the Chatham Pri­ma­ry and San­ta Flo­ra pri­ma­ry schools.

Mey­er said the last few years with EF­CL have been very chal­leng­ing and there’s no time­line for res­o­lu­tion. Since last fis­cal year the EF­CL has been un­able to deal with projects, mak­ing the min­istry lose time, he added.

“But we met EF­CL this week and they’re dis­cussing get­ting con­trac­tors back on site by next week. Some ad­di­tion­al pay­ments may have to be made,” Mey­er.

He al­so con­firmed there’s no for­mal pol­i­cy for re­port­ing of mis­con­duct in state agen­cies over which the min­istry has over­sight. He said the min­istry some­times get un­signed re­ports from staffers but the dif­fi­cul­ty is there’s no whistle­blow­er law.

“It’s dif­fi­cult for an em­ploy­ee to blow the whis­tle with­out statu­to­ry pro­tec­tion. Some pro­tec­tion is in the Pro­cure­ment Act, but gen­er­al­ly there’s none - so we’re in a bit of a bind,” he said.

If one reached the whistle­blow­ing stage, he added, “It meant mon­i­tor­ing wasn’t where it should be. You shouldn’t have to de­pend on whistle­blow­ers, Sys­tems should be ro­bust enough for you to know what’s hap­pen­ing.”

He said the re­al prob­lem is pro­tec­tion for the whistle­blow­er be­cause of vic­tim­i­sa­tion.

“This is a small coun­try, even with un­signed let­ters, you can know who did it,” he not­ed.

Mey­er said the min­istry de­pends on re­ports from agen­cies con­cern­ing fraud and nepo­tism but the min­istry al­so flags is­sues, fol­lows board min­utes and checks is­sues in the news­pa­pers.

On Mark’s con­cerns about a re­port on al­leged nepo­tism at YTEPP, Mey­er said the min­istry didn’t re­quest a spe­cif­ic re­port on that since it was dealt with. Say­ing “this was T&T and it may be a lit­tle hard to work out re­la­tion­ships,” he added the sit­u­a­tion con­tin­ues un­der dis­cus­sion. He said the min­istry may have to re­quest a list of staff and fam­i­ly mem­bers.

“It’s go­ing to be dif­fi­cult but we’re in­ves­ti­gat­ing,” he said.

Mey­er said he’d check to see if the wife of the for­mer YTEPP CEO is cur­rent­ly em­ployed there. He agreed a plan was nec­es­sary to deal with nepo­tism, since some pri­vate sec­tor com­pa­nies have this. He said it was dif­fi­cult to do this in the pub­lic sec­tor, but the min­istry is ex­am­in­ing the is­sue and re­view­ing sys­tems.

He agreed the min­istry needs ad­di­tion­al staff. He said if some is­sues re­quir­ing au­dit are red-flagged, the Fi­nance Min­istry is called in. Mey­er fur­ther agreed his of­fice should have di­rect over­sight over agen­cies.

“If you have to give $1 bil­lion to an agency, you want to know how mon­ey is be­ing spent. We had some very un­for­tu­nate in­ci­dents with agen­cies for cer­tain de­vices,” he said, adding the min­istry is en­gag­ing Fi­nance on over­sight.

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