Ministry owes $millions to private secondary schools

An impasse between Education Minister Anthony Garcia and the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Private Secondary Schools (TTAPSS) over an increase in fees for Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) examination pupils assigned to their schools has left the Garcia looking for alternative places to put those pupils. However, Garcia is assuring all Government-assisted pupils will be placed.

Yesterday, acting TTAPSS president Leslie Hislop told the T&T Guardian private secondary schools principals felt they had no choice but to adopt the position because they felt they could not “continue to provide places at the current rate being paid.”

Hislop said the ministry has been paying $1200 per term for these students and it has been placing the schools in financial crisis. In addition, he said because the allocation from the ministry is late most of the time, “our reality is that we have to face workers every month and tell them ‘well I not sure I could pay you this month’.”

The affected schools are the Open Bible High School, Caribbean Union College, Southern Academy, Corpus Christi, St Charles, Bishops Centenary, St Joseph College and Johnson Finishing School.

Hislop, principal at the Caribbean Union College, said they were cash-strapped and had virtually used up every avenue of financing available. He said currently the schools were indebted to “various organisations, in some instances the churches that are responsible for running the schools, some people have even approached and received some funding from private business persons and the banks are no longer interested in treating with the schools because of the financial reality. Banks can’t go into a situation where you not sure you going to get your money back if you provide a loan.”

Administrator at Bishops Centenary College Akai Webster said the bank had recently extended her school’s overdraft by $450,000, which they used to pay salaries because of late payments from the ministry.

She said they could not get an extension of the overdraft and yesterday they were again told by the ministry that the cheques to pay teachers’ salaries would not be ready until the end of next week.

“Teachers pay-day is tomorrow (Thursday), what am I going to say to the teachers? I don’t know what will happen when the teachers hear they will not be paid,” Webster said.

She expressed disappointment that for yet another time, the school had been put in this position although claim forms had gone to the ministry since May 21.

Hislop said Bishops’ case was symptomatic of the financial constraints which the schools faced and one which they just could not continue. He said at a recent meeting with Garcia, principals indicated they were willing to provide places but not at the current rate. He said the private schools provided a “vital service to the education sector” by providing places in areas where the demand for school places was very high.

He said if those students could not be accommodated because of the impasse, “we are looking at a few hundred students well who would be out of place in the Form One SEA intake.”

Hislop said the association had also written to Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley and sent him documentary evidence of the cost per student and why they were asking for an increase from $1200 to $5700 per student per term. He said they have received no response to their letter, which was delivered to the PM’s Office last Monday (June 18).

“More than likely, the schools will have to close or seriously have to adjust their structures. We are looking at job cuts and all that kind of thing while the schools go into recovery mode,” Hislop said as he noted the institutions will have to readjust their operations.

He said while they did not want to issue the ultimatum to the ministry they basically had no choice.

“We don’t want to lose our schools, we love education, we believe in offering a quality product to all children, but the reality is we cannot continue to sustain the schools at that rate, it is financially impossible.”

In the past nine years, he said the shortfall from the ministry towards funding the schools, which had as many as 80 per cent of their pupils funded by Government, was over $1.5 million annually.

“We are technically subsiding the cost of education to all the students who are placed in these schools by the Ministry of Education,” he said.

GARCIA: WE WILL FIND SPACES

Contacted yesterday, Garcia said they had written to the private schools asking them whether they were willing to provide SEA places and the response was not good.

“The majority of them said they are not willing to accede to that request until the matter is settled. That is their prerogative,” Garcia said.

He said he did not see any resolution to the matter before the end of the term next month because there was a process to be followed. He admitted that the schools had been doing a very good job.

“They have been providing access to education and from all the reports we have received they have been doing an excellent job so we would not want to push them out,” he said.

However, assured that “if the private schools are unwilling to accept students we will make alternative arrangements” and every child who wrote SEA, “as long as they perform creditably, will have access to the quality of education that we are determined to provide”.

Asked where the school places will come from, Garcia said, “We will find places.”

He said a committee has been set up to hold discussions with the schools’ representatives and they are hoping to get recommendations on the way forward following these talks. That recommendation, he said, will then have to be taken to Cabinet so the time frame does not allow the matter to be resolved quickly.

Source: www.guardian.co.tt (Rosemarie Sant)

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