Those councillors who voted on Tuesday morning not to close the North Roe and Sandness primary schools will no doubt be basking in the admiration of supporters who believe they’ve stopped the Evil Ones in Hateful House “tearing the heart out” of their communities. The warm glow will be short-lived. Hopefully, by the time the Full Council meets on Tuesday 17th, to receive the report from the services committee, even these members will have realised just how inconsistent and irresponsible their well-meaning votes were.
What they’ve actually done is slash the budget for each and every one of Shetland’s school pupils, including those at the schools they’ve “saved”. The precise figure, as a result of Tuesday’s vote, is £31 per pupil less for head teachers to spend on books, equipment and furniture. Not just next year, but every year thereafter. That’s on top of the £21 per pupil they’ve already cut from the teaching materials budget, Shetland-wide, by keeping the Skerries secondary department open.
These local heroes will soon be hearing from the parents of children at the other schools in their wards, probably long before the May 2012 council election that was in the minds of some at the meeting. They’ll need to explain why every school in Shetland is now £52 per pupil worse off, due to the £170,000-worth of savings they could have made but chose not to. They won’t be able to blame anyone but themselves, because they all voted a while back for the council policy that these savings must come from the education budget if some schools were not closed. Personally, I’d take the £170,000 off vice-convener Josie Simpson’s development committee budget, in perpetuity. But that’s not council policy and, as the vice-convener tells us so often, we must stick to council policy.
Like the other would-be saviours of their communities, the vice-convener has undermined hard-working council staff by ignoring their expert advice, rubbishing their figures and treating them with contempt. Those of us who hope to be re-elected next May will have to clean up the mess, and what a mess it will be. But it seems there’s no point reminding some members that the council faces a £25m budget deficit next year. That’s before we take into account any settlement with the Lerwick Port Authority over the Bressay Bridge legal fiasco, or the potential liabilities of the Shetland Towage pension fund, which between them could add at least £10m to the bill. These figures are truly alarming and in due course will make this week’s vote irrelevant. That’s because we’ll soon be forced to reduce budgets for all schools to a level where parents will be demanding school amalgamations (or voting with their feet, through parental choice), as the only way to preserve equal access for all to the best quality of education we can afford.
I’ve come to the conclusion that you needn’t bother taking a carefully argued case, based on factual evidence, to committee or Full Council. Such meetings have largely become charades. The votes have often been decided in private chats and phone calls some time beforehand. That’s how our council operates under the current, unreformed political administration. That’s why I’ll be making my own contributions to this crucial debate entirely in public from now on.
Cllr Jonathan Wills