Association for Efficient and Responsible Governance

Millions Buried in Schools on the Brink of Closedown

Stamate Olesea | Mon, 04/25/2016 - 12:26

Modernised schools have been closed three years after their capital renovation. It occurred in a number of districts of the country, where the authorities have neglected the demographic trends and invested millions in schools with no future.

The school of Coada Iazului, district of Sângerei was closed two years ago. In this village, almost devoid of inhabitants, the former school building is the only one that stands out among the shabby houses. The imposing building, with tile roof, news windows and doors, looks now like a monument to money thrown to the wind.

In 2008, over 772 000 lei were invested in this building through the Moldova Social Investment Fund (MSIF). According to the official documents, half of the amount (about 316 000 lei) was allocated for the roof, and the remainder was used for carpentry works. The authorities did not question the need for such investments, despite the already perceived shortage of pupils at the school and the demographic trends that did not predict any optimistic prospects. The first reorganization of the gymnasium was undertaken three years after the completion of works, when the pupils of grades V-IX were transferred to schools in the town of Sângerei. Two years later, the school was definitively closed, as not more than six pupils were enrolled in it. Two of them were from the respective village and the other had to walk to school from the neighbouring village of Lipovanca, a community located four kilometres away. The staff consisted of three employees, but none of them held a teaching degree. The State allocated yearly 25 000  lei for each pupil of Coada Iazului, that is three times more than in other schools with classes of 20-25 pupils.

Because of the small number of pupils, the school was facing a chronic budget deficit, consequently, the district education directorate repeatedly requested its closedown, says Mihai Curciuc, deputy director of the district directorate for Education, Youth and Sports of Sângerei. According to Curciuc, the respective decision was not approved because of an opposing group of district councillors, who invoked, among other arguments, the fact that considerable investments had been made in that institution. After the school closedown, the pupils were transferred to other institutions and the building was used for the preschool group of the village’s kindergarten, consisting of only 11 children.

Unjustified investments were also made at the former gymnasium of Slobozia-Măgură. In 2008, over 653 000 lei were allocated to this institution through the MSIF. The money was used for the repair of the roof, of the electrical networks, of the heating system, as well as for carpentry works and outside arrangement. In addition to the above-mentioned, sanitary facilities for children were built. A few years after the completion of works, the gymnasium was closed. The reason for the closedown was the extremely low number of pupils. According to the authorities, the building hosts now the primary school which occupies only a couple of classrooms. The other areas, renovated with investments of hundreds of thousands of lei, are mothballed.

Two million lei for a school with 60 pupils

The school of Bilicenii Noi, district of Sângerei is another project with no future, where a large amount of money was invested. A biomass heating system was built in this institution. The money was allocated through the Energy and Biomass Project and the total cost of the project amounts to 75 200 dollars, plus over 190 000 lei – the contribution to the community

According to the official data, no more than 60 pupils were enrolled in the gymnasium at the beginning of this school year, therefore, the district authorities have several times raised the issue of the school reorganization and transfer of pupils and teachers to the school of the neighbouring village - Mândrești, which is part of the same commune.

Mihai Curciuc states that the district education directorate always opposed to the implementation of investment projects in small schools, but the local government authorities did not take into account their recommendations. “We always opted for investing in schools with at least 300 pupils who are likely to be operational in the next 10 years. Only such investments may be considered as efficient”, the official says.

Useless investments were made in Soroca, too

In the district of Soroca, one out of three educational institutions has the status of small school, having than 100 pupils. Even if some schools were located at a distance of only two-three kilometres from each other, their reorganization has been delayed for several years. As a result, investments were made without taking into account the fact that some institutions might be closed.

In Soloneţ, district of Soroca a school modernized by the book with the support of the Social Investment Fund was closed in 2012, although hundreds of thousands of lei had been invested in its renovation only a few years before. By the time when it ceased its activities, it had no more than 40 pupils. Now, the village’s kindergarten occupies a few classrooms of the former school, and the other area is mothballed.

Extremely expensive modernisation works were performed at the gymnasium of Iorjniţa which was closed on 1st of September 2015. The Energy and Biomass Project invested in it 119 950 US dollars (that is more than two million lei at the current exchange rate), an amount complemented by the community contribution of 227 953 lei.

The new heating system was meant to heat 1 672 square meters of school premises. When the institution was closed, it had only 45 pupils who are now studying in schools of the neighbouring villages - Rublenița and Holoșnița.  

The officials of the district directorate for Education, Youth and Sport argued that other institutions of the district had a greater need for a heating system, but their arguments were not taken into account while making the respective decision. Ghenadie Donos, head of the directorate, says that the boiler should have been installed in the gymnasium of Cosăuți, the seat of the commune which includes the village of Iorjniţa. The heating system belongs now to the local government and the authorities are in search of possibilities for dismantling the equipment and installing it in an institution of the neighbouring village.

“I have said from the beginning that the investment was not efficient, but the project was nevertheless implemented. At that time, nobody believed that small schools would be closed or reorganized”, Ghenadie  Donos explains.

 Half a million for a small school

In Tarasova, a small village situated on the bank of the Dniester, the most beautiful building is that of the gymnasium. In 2012, the Government allocated, through the MSIF, half a million lei for the renovation of the facade and for replacing the roof and the windows of this institution. Now the interior of the building is as bleak, as elegant is its exterior. When roof replacement works were made, the workers left the building uncovered and a torrential rain soaked the walls and the ceiling.

Four years after project completion, only 52 pupils are learning in this school with classes of five or six pupils. Now the gymnasium shares the same building with the kindergarten. During the meeting of the district council of Rezina held in last February, there were proposals for the reorganisation of the gymnasium of Tarasova, alongside with seven other schools of the district with a small number of pupils. The seven gymnasiums were supposed to be transformed into primary schools starting with the 1st of September 2016. Like in other cases, that proposal was not supported by the district councillors. According to district authorities, because of the small number of pupils, the schools of Rezina have a financial deficit of 5,56 million lei. As a consequence of the slow structural reform, the district wasted about 13 million lei, an amount that would be sufficient to finance for one year at least ten schools with 100 pupils each.

There are similar cases throughout the country

The only biomass heating system installed in the district of Basarabeasca was the one at the gymnasium of Iordanovca, an institution that has the official status of a small school. In September 2012, 120 000 US dollars were invested in this institution by the Energy and Biomass Project and over 111 000 lei, as the community contribution. One year later, the district directorate for Education, Youth and Sports of Basarabeasca proposed the reorganization of this institution and the pupils were supposed to be transported to “C. Stere” theoretical lycee of the neighbouring village of Abaclia (four kilometres away) or at “M. Basarab” theoretical lycee of Basarabeasca (eight kilometres away). In both cases, a school bus was meant to transport the children.

What does the MSIF say?

Being contacted by the reporter of the Centre for Journalistic Investigations, Mircea Eşanu, Executive Director of Moldova Social Investment Fund, assured us that the Fund has several mechanisms to follow-up the continuity of the projects in which it invests. MSIF has a national board of directors which includes a representative of the Ministry of Education. According to Eșanu, now the Fund invests exclusively in schools with a sufficient number of pupils, especially in constituency schools for children of several communities. “It started in 2014. We have a project with the World Bank for the rehabilitation of about 20 constituency schools and adapting them to the needs of disabled children. To avoid accusations of discretionary selection of schools, the Fund set up a project board, following the grant procedures and terms of reference. The Deputy Minister of Education chairs the board. They select the schools, approve the funding, etc. Those people know exactly the course of the structural reform in education, what institutions will be optimized and it is their task to avoid undue inclusion of schools in the list of beneficiaries”, Eşanu said.

MSIF director also added that, by virtue of all grant agreements signed by the Fund, the village and the community are compelled to maintain for 15 years the educational destination of the renovated institution. “As long as they locate a kindergarten in the renovated building, it is all right. We have such examples and we encourage such a practice. Rather than to occupy a makeshift house or to build a new building, it is easier to rearrange the school as a kindergarten. Such buildings also may be reorganised as day care centres for children, artistic or music circles, meaning that the educational mission of the institution is maintained”, Eşanu says.

According to MSIF director, the fund has financed over the years hundreds of projects in schools - some of them were overhauled, in other were either installed or renovated the heating systems and the sanitary facilities.

Energy and Biomass Project: “We crosschecked the list of institutions with the Ministry of Education and with education directorates”

The representatives of Energy and Biomass Project, funded by the European Union and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme, also said they had cross-checked the list of beneficiary institutions with the Ministry of Education and with district directorates for education. In a formal response addressed to the Centre for Journalistic Investigations, Tatiana Crăciun, the project’s community mobilisation specialist, told us that, at the request of the Project Selection Committee, the representative of the Ministry of Education regularly submitted the lists of pre-university education institutions subject to optimization. “On the other hand, the lists of educational institutions approved as beneficiaries of biomass heating plants were sent to the Ministry of Education. It should be noted that the members of the Selection Committee have rejected a number of investment projects submitted by schools which were included at that stage in the list of the Ministry of Education. As for the subsequent decision of the Ministry of Education to include the former beneficiaries of European funds in the list of institutions subject to optimization, it was appropriate during the period of planning the investments, not post-factum”, the letter specifies.

Tatiana Crăciun also mentioned that at the second stage of the project (2015-2017), the representative of the Ministry of Education was a voting member of the Committee in charge of the selection of investment projects, as well as a member of the Board of Energy and Biomass Project. According to her, the Project Selection Committee of Energy and Biomass Project consists of representatives of the Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Industry, the Ministry of Regional Development and Construction, the Ministry of Education, the Agency for Energy Efficiency, the Energy Efficiency Fund, the EU Delegation in Moldova, UNDP Moldova, the Energy and Biomass Project.

The Minister of Education: “In the future, we shall exclusively invest in constituency schools”

At the request of the reporter of the Centre for Journalistic Investigations, the Minister of Education, Corina Fusu, assured that no investments are currently made into small schools. “We shall only invest in constituency schools, if you are considering infrastructure. Mandatory compliance with a package of minimum eight standards will be requested, they are related to water supply and sanitation systems, hot water supply, decent sanitary facilities, classrooms for physics, chemistry, biology. The plans for the reconstruction of 19 constituency schools based on a loan agreement with the World Bank have already been designed”, the Minister said.

Expert: The Government lacks a strategic vision for the development of each sector”

According to Olesea Stamate, President of the Association for Efficient and Responsible Governance (AGER), strategic planning is a systemic and perpetual deficiency in the Republic of Moldova. “The past years have been marked by the frequent change of governments, which, being political structures, have not always ensured the continuity of the reforms started by the predecessors. Even if we ignore these circumstances, the government lacks a clear strategic vision for the short term, and particularly for the medium and long term development of each sector”, Olesea Stamate says. The expert believes that such a vision would considerably support the development of sectors, even with the few financial resources available. “Certainly, it would help avoid the waste of considerable amounts of money. The responsibility for such losses belongs to the authorities, which often do not take into account the interests of the citizens, just the personal ones”, Olesea Stamate stated.

Over 260 small schools throughout the country

Throughout the previous school year, 24 general education institutions ceased their activity - six primary schools, 11 gymnasiums, two lycees and five schools for disabled children. According to the data of the National Bureau for Statistics, five schools in the total number of closed schools are located in towns and the remaining 19 – in villages. In the same time, 19 institutions were reorganized from gymnasiums into primary schools and 30 lycees became gymnasiums.

Today, there are over 260 small schools in the country. Nobody knows how many of them have previously benefited from costly investments.

The investigation has been done in the framework of the Campaign „Public Money Is My Money Too”, conducted by the Centre for Journalistic Investigations (CJI) and the Association for Efficient and Responsible Governance (AGER), within a project funded by the European Union and the National Endowment for Democracy.