Parents of pupils at the Anderson High School are to be briefed on prospective plans for a new secondary school at the lower Staney Hill at a public meeting on Monday evening.Back in 2009 councillors agreed to ditch plans to rebuild on the existing Knab site and switch to the lower Staney Hill, following a vocal campaign from parents. But in the intervening two years the financial climate has worsened considerably, prompting some – including local trade union officials – to question whether a new school is affordable at all.
The meeting has been organised by the SIC as it continues to investigate how best to build on the site to the north of Clickimin, and is aimed at providing parents with information about the three possible options under consideration.
Under the so-called “gateway process” which major capital projects of this nature now go through, the council is looking at either building a new school at lower Staney Hill, refurbishing the existing school, or a “do nothing” option to maintain the current buildings. Parents will have the opportunity to quiz officials about the project.
Chairman of the AHS parent council Alex Fullerton said some parents were worried about the impact of a major revamp of the existing school. Public outcry two years ago was primarily related to the “disruption it was going to cause to the education, health and safety of the bairns up there”, he said.
“We feel that with a big refurbishment programme that’s still an issue, so we’d hope we’d get parents coming along to this meeting.”
Children and families committee chairwoman Betty Fullerton said councillors had made a clear and decisive choice to build at the lower Staney Hill. But at this stage she does not want to take a stance on whether a new high school remains within the council’s financial means.
Mrs Fullerton told The Shetland Times: “The council is in a very precarious financial situation. I wouldn’t like to answer that question at the moment. We’ve got to get the figures on the table, see what that will mean for us, then the members will have to take a decision.”
Following the meeting with parents, officials will compile a report which councillors will consider at the next children and families committee session on 9th November.
Mrs Fullerton continued: “We’re going to have to be very careful about what we commit. Unless I was crystal ball gazing I wouldn’t be able to say what that decision might be.”
She insisted there was no question of officials trying to override the political will of councillors, as has been suggested in some quarters, and said the local authority was required to look at all possible options to ensure it is getting “best value” from big construction projects.
“The council decided the preferred option was to build at the lower Staney Hill, and that’s where the main part of the resources are going,” she said. “But as part of best value requirements we also have to look at the other options on the table, which would be either continuing with the same building, or making adaptations to the current building, but that’s purely because best value requires us to do that.”
With the SIC already looking to drive through huge and unpopular cutbacks to public services, there are concerns that building a new school would saddle the local authority with millions of pounds a year in repayments, which would require yet more cuts.
Up until now the plan has been for Shetland Charitable Trust to pick up the tab for construction on a “sale and leaseback” arrangement which, based on a £40 million school, would cost the SIC £3 million a year or more. The unions’ argument is that there is little point building a pricey new school if it means no longer being able to pay teachers’ wages.
West Side councillor Gary Robinson says there are strong merits for building at the lower Staney Hill, with its more central location. Though the proposal has to be “looked at very carefully and costed properly”, on balance he remains confident a new school will be built later this decade.
“Regardless of what we do [with the Knab site] it’s going to be congested, and putting construction work into that part of the town I don’t think really appeals to anybody,” he said.
“I was disappointed this had to go through [the gateway] process at all. As far as I was concerned we had made a clear decision, but apparently this is the consultation the ministers expect us to go through. I think it’s been a long, drawn-out and largely unnecessary affair, personally. Hopefully if we get the right answer at the end we might be able to say it was worth it.”
If councillors do opt to go ahead at lower Staney Hill – 20 years on from the project’s inception – officials estimate it will be 2017 at the soonest before pupils begin being taught in the new school. A consultant, Selwyn Schofield, has been drafted in temporarily to work on the project with Robert Sinclair, head of the SIC’s capital programme service.