Education chiefs under fire as school building funds unspent
MILLIONS of euro earmarked for much-needed school buildings have yet to be spent by the Department of Education, new figures reveal.
A budget of €578m has been allocated for school building projects but just €135m has been drawn down in the first six months of this year.
If this spending trend was to continue, the department could be forced into the embarrassing situation of handing unspent funds back to the Department of Finance.
A storm erupted last October among the 1,200 schools waiting on approval for building works when it emerged the department had only spent 52pc of its school building budget.
However, it is understood that most of the budget was allocated by the end of 2009.
Underspending was blamed on lower building costs, delays arising from a new form of public works contract, and the large number of relatively small projects in school buildings.
But the department has always insisted it will spend the full 100pc budget by the end of this year. It can carry over 10pc of the budget into the New Year.
Tanaiste and Education Minister Mary Coughlan has said the investment of €578m demonstrates the Government's determination to create construction jobs and to provide schoolchildren and teachers with the best educational environment in which to learn and work.
But Fine Gael's Brian Hayes accused the department of "gross incompetence" as hundreds of overcrowded and old schools patiently waited for extensions and new buildings.
The former education spokesman, who was recently overlooked by Enda Kenny for any role in the frontbench, claimed there was something "badly wrong" when the department could not spend the money it was given to construct new schools and classrooms.
About a third of all the schools in the country have applications under the school building programme with the department.
"In a few weeks' time, half a million young people will go back to primary schools up and down the country. Schools are crying out for new buildings and new classrooms," Mr Hayes said.
"The construction industry has the capacity to provide new buildings. Prices have fallen by over a third. We are told that there is no problem in providing the funds for such buildings.
"The minister and her department should explain why they find it so difficult to spend the money that they are given."
More than €100m has been spent on temporary accommodation over the past three years, most of it on prefabs.
Repeatedly, schools have complained about the "snail-like" application and tendering process they must go through, before construction can begin.
In a recent response to a written Dail question, Ms Coughlan confirmed that just €135m of the €578m budget had been spent by July.
A spokesman for Ms Coughlan last night said overall spending level was on target for this time of year and that, traditionally, expenditure on the capital programme increased in the second half of the year.