A fresh row has erupted over Wednesday’s decision on the future of schooling throughout Shetland, with a warning that the failure to follow a consultant’s recommendations could damage education and services run by other departments.
According to Lerwick south councillor Jonathan Wills, the SIC is committed to finding an extra £600,000, incurred by the decision to keep all Junior High Schools open till S2 level, from the existing education budget.
The extra cost of the compromise that was backed by all councillors bar Dr Wills, fellow Lerwick councillor Allan Wishart, education committee chairwoman Vaila Wishart and Shetland north councillor Drew Ratter, is in addition to £916,000 already identified as overspend if the council had pressed ahead with its consultant’s recommendation to axe Aith and Sandwick secondary departments in their entirity.
Dr Wills sent out a letter to his council colleagues and the media, to “correct and clarify” the council’s budgetary obligations and “confusing” statements by education vice-chairman George Smith on local radio. Mr Smith had moved the amended education resolution at Wednesday’s full council meeting, which calls for yet another report to give more detail on the “savings or shortfall required” and provide “a more definite understanding of the financial figures.”
Dr Wills writes: “To insist that the £1.56m will be found elsewhere, as the mover of the motion repeatedly said on Radio Shetland last evening, may cause unnecessary confusion among staff and the general public. That may be his opinion and his fond hope.
“It is not in accordance with council policy as it stands at present, which is that the shortfall in education savings will not be passed on in the form of reduced ferry runs, even higher charges for home care, even fewer refuse collections or even less road maintenance and snow-clearing.
“On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the money not saved on Wednesday may result in accelerated amalgamations of primary schools (one thinks of Dunrossness, Sandwick and Cunningsburgh, or Hamnavoe, Tingwall and Scalloway) and even fewer books, working computers and teaching materials for pupils in the three Lerwick schools, one of which, the AHS, serves the whole of Shetland.”
The earlier wording of the resolution had explicitly stated that the “shortfall on the £3.268 million savings target be found from a further examination of all Council budgets and consideration of the Council’s Reserve Policy.”
Mr Smith said that it was prudent and reasonable to completely re-examine the funding situation in light of a new educational policy being adopted.
“It would be foolhardy to look at one source of funds when the situation has changed. We should be prepared to look across all budgets. The money might well come from education, we just don’t know until we get the report,” he added.
But Dr Wills insists that departments which have already met their targets should not be penalised and that there is no option but to load the savings onto education, “until the full council decides otherwise” and that “the current financial policy, agreed unanimously only two months ago, remains in force.”
Mr Smith denied that the re-worded resolution conceded this point and that it had been re-worked in order to achieve unity within the council, which was “very important”.
“It is clear that Jonathan has a different view on life and in terms of what the council priorities should be. Thankfully most folk take a more broad viewpoint and are prepared to look at how council money is spent and not just just on one particular area.”
He said that it was also important to identify the reasons behind the apparent £3000-4000 difference in educational cost per pupil between Shetland and similar island authorities like Orkney and the Western Isles. That might, or might not disclose areas where additional savings could be made.