No vow of omerta (Jonathan Wills)
Councillor Gary Cleaver, writing in Readers’ Views on 22nd November, makes some clever points. This is no surprise to those who have heard him speak in the council chamber, where it is always obvious just how clever he is.
Tempting as it is to ignore Mr Cleaver’s strictures on my character and motives, I think it wiser to refute, lest folk get the wrong impression.
First of all, he expresses “dismay” that I have “chosen to disregard the democratic decision” of the council on 13th November (about reducing all junior secondary schools to nine-year “super-primaries”, or “middle schools” as they are called in some countries).
Clever, but wrong: I don’t disregard it at all. I accept it, but that will not prevent me pointing out that, if implemented, it will indeed breach council financial policy – unless the £600,000 cost is found from savings elsewhere in the schools budget.
Then there is the shocking accusation that I insist on “looking for arenas outside of the council chamber” to continue my arguments. I plead guilty as charged: I have a right, and in my opinion, a duty, to explain my position to the voters, using the public media.
If councillors observed a vow of omerta except when taking part in debates in the chamber it would be a very strange state of affairs, reminiscent of the orchestrated machine “politics” of the People’s Republic of China.
So, at the risk of further upsetting Mr Cleaver, I will continue to take part in public debates in the media about council policy. I think that is part of what councillors are paid to do.
Next comes the charge of “unfortunate scaremongering” in my letters and radio appearances. If I may presume to translate, what Mr Cleaver probably means is that he disagrees with me and would prefer if I did not point out the possible consequences of the education committee failing to save the £1.5 million a year which it is obliged to save, under a council policy for which Mr Cleaver voted a couple of months ago. These consequences obviously include amalgamating some primary schools.
Like Mr Cleaver, I had read the report for the council meeting thoroughly (although he cleverly insinuates that I had not). I cannot agree with him that council education spending per pupil “remains stubbornly complex”. In fact it has been repeatedly analysed and explained to councillors over the past ten years, in five fudged attempts to reform our education system and reduce the number of schools to what we can afford, while providing the best possible opportunities for all pupils.
As for the “uncertainty that surrounds the full cost of the service and the potential for further efficiency savings”, if Mr Cleaver knew of a clever way suddenly to save the £600,000 a year he wants to spend on making Aith and Sandwick into super-primaries (apparently by cutting back on school dinners and cleaning), why on earth didn’t he tell the education committee about it, long before the report on school costs came to full council?
If he and his clever colleagues have no confidence in the ability of our council’s education officials to do the arithmetic, perhaps they should have the courage to say so in public.
It is clear from his comments that Mr Cleaver has still not fully understood what he voted for. The council decision to add £600,000 to the education department’s annual costs, on top of the £916,000 in savings it had already failed to deliver, leaves the department £1.56 million short.
The vice-chairman of the education committee attempted to have this saving shifted to other departments which had already met their savings targets. When I pointed out to the meeting that this would be in breach of council financial policy, he amended his proposal to mean that education, and not other council services, would still have to find the saving, unless and until the full council decides otherwise.
After the meeting, he attempted to suggest that the money would be found by other services after all. This was a fudge. To have ignored it would not have been clever at all.
Councillor for Lerwick North