EDUCATION Minister Mary Hanafin is actively considering giving ?3m or more in public funds to a top fee-paying secondary school in her constituency.
She is due to make an announcement within a few days of the latest list of approved building projects.
The inclusion of the Christian Brothers College in Monkstown, Co Dublin, which has 560 day students paying ?2,370 each, would inevitably lead to a strong political backlash at a time when other schools in the Free Education scheme are housed in totally inadequate facilities.
And if Monkstown is included it will strengthen the hand of another fee-paying school in the same constituency, Blackrock College, which has massive building plans that could cost around ?30m - some of which it wants the government to fund.
Yesterday Ms Hanafin paid a surprise early morning visit to the Monkstown college. She had been expected in the afternoon but arrived shortly after the school opened.
Clearly expecting a major political backlash if she approves the college's building plans, she is believed to have asked for reasons to publicly justify such a controversial decision.
The country's 58 fee-paying schools are already getting ?86m in subsidies this year, most of which is going to pay the salaries of 1,605 teachers employed there. Critics argue that the extra income from fees gives them an unfair advantage over schools in the Free Education scheme.
Traditionally the fee-paying schools fare badly when it comes to capital grants for building works. A ?3m building grant to CBC Monkstown would be the biggest yet to the fee-paying sector.
Since 1995 only ?16.5m has been given to the sector, and only a few schools have received more than ?1m. They include Kilkenny College (?2.6m), Loreto Beaufort, Rathfarnham, Dublin (?1.6m) and Belvedere College, Dublin (?1.1m).
The Monkstown school says its fees are at the lower end of the spectrum and have been used to broaden the curricular range available to its students. The low fees do not allow the school to set money aside for capital work, it says.
The original building for the Monkstown school dates back to 1843, with additions in 1948, 1960 and 1980. The home economics room is in the basement and if a washing machine is used it often knocks out the power in the classrooms immediately above.
The school has six pre-fabs, four of which were paid for by the Department and the other by the school. A report commissioned by the school and the Department five years ago concluded that it would be better to rebuild the main school rather than try to refurbish it.
It is believed the original plans would have cost around ?6m but the cost has increased since because of the Department's delay in taking a decision. The most the school could hope for would be 50pc of the building costs and it would have to raise the rest.