Councillors have backed plans to seek Scottish government funding towards building a replacement Anderson High School at the lower Staney Hill in Lerwick.
Following a fairly cordial 90-minute debate at Lerwick Town Hall this afternoon, members of the education and families committee unanimously agreed to make the approach when a new tranche of funding is made available early in 2012.
Elected members also re-affirmed an earlier decision that the school should be built at the foot of the Staney Hill, where there is access to Clickimin’s nearby leisure centre.
Director of children’s services Helen Budge had proposed leaving plans for a new halls of residence to one side for now, but members decided that some form of accommodation for pupils from outlying areas should form an integral part of the new school project.
As the SIC strives to strip £18 million from its annual budget over the next two years, securing government support will be critical in making a new school affordable.
At a recent meeting in Edinburgh, education minister Mike Russell encouraged the local authority’s delegation to bid for up to two-thirds of the capital cost.
In order to get government assistance, the council will have to adhere to national standards in its funding bid. That means planning for a school of only 11,000 square metres to house 1,000 pupils, rather than the grander 17,400 square metre option set out within a year-long feasibility study for the project as part of the so-called “gateway process”.
Mrs Budge’s report suggests a smaller school – not including a hostel – would cost roughly £30.25 million, and if successful the SIC could hope to attract around £18 million through the Scottish Futures Trust (SFT) and its “schools for the future” programme.
The council could then theoretically opt for a more palatial school using its own funds, though education and families chairwoman Betty Fullerton believes councillors are now eschewing the previous “Rolls Royce” mentality and adopting a more frugal outlook. “This is us coming down to earth and being realistic,” she said.
Funding for the school will come under further scrutiny at Wednesday morning’s session of the Full Council. The wider financial impact of the “once in a generation” decision will be considered alongside the educational case for the new school, which will educate Shetland pupils for the next half-century or more.
An exhaustive 96-page document accompanying Mrs Budge’s report set out the pros and cons of three other options: doing nothing, refurbishing the existing buildings or erecting a new school at the Knab. Those options were included as “comparators” to the preferred site, though parents’ aversion to their children being taught next to a building site meant it was never likely that councillors would perform another U-turn.
Councillor Jonathan Wills – one of the principal architects behind the popular decision to flit across town – said the SIC had built lots of schools with no outside assistance, which should strengthen its case for funding in this instance.
Dr Wills said it was vital to know whether the terms of government funding would encompass capital and interest repayments. There are fears that the SIC’s debt-free status will be jeopardised, and that further service cuts might be needed to pay off the capital cost over 20 years or more. Precise details should emerge in the new year.
Mrs Budge anticipates that the government will seek bids from early January, giving officials just over a month to prepare the SIC’s case. It should learn whether its bid has succeeded by the spring, which veteran councillor Florence Grains said would be “quicker than normal for government”.
It is the latest juncture in a saga which has seen nearly £6 million of taxpayers’ money spent since 1991 with nothing to show for it.
Mrs Fullerton told this newspaper she was relieved at having secured political consensus, albeit subject to Wednesday’s deliberations.
She believes the project’s viability will stand or fall on whether the funding bid succeeds. Mrs Fullerton said after the meeting: “If we could get, for example, [a] grant or a revenue funding stream then I think it could be affordable, even though we’re in a pretty poor financial position. If we can’t get support from the government I think it would be a very different picture.”
A hostel comes with an estimated price tag of nearly £9.5 million in addition to the school’s cost. However it was pointed out that smaller accommodation units rather than a like-for-like replacement would be an option. Former education spokesman Bill Manson said more flexible units might be preferable to the present “monolithic structure”.
Dr Wills pointed out that 15 per cent of S5 and S6 pupils reside in the existing hostel. Parents were “very concerned” and he did not want to see some form of accommodation excluded from the project’s scope at this stage.
South Mainland councillor Rick Nickerson agreed, saying he was “frustrated” that the hostel always seemed to be an “add-on” when it in fact played a critical role in how isles pupils integrated with others in the school.
Ex-services committee chairman Gussie Angus was “delighted” with today’s decision, but remains far from happy with the gateway process. Indeed, he feels that two years have been squandered since councillors settled on the lower Staney Hill site in the autumn of 2009.
Mr Angus said refurbishing the existing Knab buildings had been “completely rejected” some time ago, yet a lot of staff time and money had then been ploughed into examining it further. He even described the latest piece of research as an attempt to “subvert local democracy”.
He was pleased to learn that the council can access technical and procurement expertise through the SFT: “I’m very encouraged by that and hope we can in early course start work on the actual project rather than the politics of it.”
Western Isles Council officials have offered to come to Shetland and share its experience of setting up a “special purpose vehicle” to take control of a new school project there. “We should expose ourselves to the risk that we might learn something,” Mr Angus noted wryly.
Several councillors reported that parent councils, including those for the Sound and Bell’s Brae primaries, wish to be kept more closely informed about progress on a new school. AHS Parent Council chairman Alex Fullerton welcomed today’s decision as “one step in the right direction at long last”, and said he hoped parents would now receive more regular updates.