Councillors and officials have moved to re-assure the public that a new Anderson High School will be built at lower Staney Hill later this decade amid a “whispering campaign” that the project will never get off the ground.
A growing number of people appear to believe the SIC cannot afford a new school and that it is not going to happen, according to councillor Gary Robinson. During today’s session of the audit and scrutiny committee, Mr Robinson said that while the local authority could not afford a “£65 million glass palace at the Knab”, it was still capable of building a perfectly good new school.
Officials have mooted an opening date of 2017 at the earliest, but Mr Robinson believes that is a conservative estimate and suggests it could be built much faster “if we get our fingers out”.
Confusion over the project’s future appears to have arisen as the new AHS is going through the council’s so-called “gateway process”, under which the SIC has to demonstrate it is getting “best value”. That means the option of refurbishing the existing sprawl of buildings at the Knab has to be looked at, along with the possibility of doing nothing.
Head of capital programme Robert Sinclair said the council had to look at the implications of such alternatives. The intention is to put a report before elected members, providing a price tag for each possible approach, towards the end of the summer.
By then two years will have elapsed since councillors ditched plans for a new school on the existing site in favour of building at lower Staney Hill, and there is some frustration among several members about the slow progress since then.
Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills, who – backed by overwhelming public support – spearheaded the campaign to switch sites in 2009, said any attempt to undo a unanimous decision by councillors would be “ferociously resisted”.
Dr Wills said officials’ ongoing work was to establish “how”, not whether, to build at lower Staney Hill. “We’ve been consulting on this since 1991,” he said. “I want to see progress soon.”
SIC chief executive Alistair Buchan said none of his staff was intent on “unpicking” agreed council policy. It was paramount, however, that councillors were “clear about the financial implications, among other things” before putting out any tenders.
Given the project’s chequered history, Mr Buchan outlined a desire to ensure everything is done to avoid unforeseen obstacles cropping up a year or two down the road.
Amid public spending cutbacks, there remains uncertainty over how the school will be funded. In December head of schools Helen Budge said that if her department had to meet the estimated £3 million-a-year cost of funding the new school, the local authority would have to look at “radical” further cuts in education.
Councillors have already agreed to shut Scalloway’s secondary department at the end of the current school term and will next month decide whether to shut four small rural primary schools.
The £3 million figure was based on a “sale and leaseback” arrangement whereby Shetland Charitable Trust’s property arm would have built a £40 million school at the Knab. That would have taken the SIC more than a quarter of a century to pay back. Any such deal at lower Staney Hill would need to be freshly negotiated with the trust.
Officials are investigating several key elements of a would-be school at lower Staney Hill, including the additional support needs department, how Clickimin would be used by the school’s PE department and the possible location of a new halls of residence for rural pupils.
It is possible a tender to design the school could go out early next year. Mr Sinclair has previously stated that it could take as long as two years to finalise the design, after which contractors would be invited to tender to build the school. Construction could then theoretically start in either 2014 or 2015.