City Halls Blast Gov't for Neglecting Unsafe Schools

The Union of Local Authorities yesterday accused the Education Ministry of failing to transfer funds in an orderly way to fix safety hazards in schools.

Some funds are transferred "at the last moment" in response to pressure from the local authorities, the ULA wrote in a response to the High Court of Justice in connection to a petition filed in the court by the Secondary School Teacher's Association and the National Parents Organization.

The petitioners, represented by attorney Sigal Pail, asked the court to order the Education Ministry to refrain from using schools that have not undergone safety tests or whose safety hazards have not been repaired.

The local authorities cannot pay the high costs of repairing the safety hazards by themselves, while the Education Ministry shirks responsiblity "as though it has no part, except for drafting instructions, in the pupils' and teachers' safety," the ULA said.

The local authorities allocate about NIS 500 million to fix "immediate defects" like removing jutting stones or replacing door hinges but the sum is insufficient to fix hazards requiring construction work. The ministry earmarks paltry sums for these purposes - a few tens of millions of shekels, the ULA says.

A ULA study conducted some two years ago in 137 local authorities found that an additional sum of NIS 1.7 billion was required to renovate buildings, rehabilitate schools and fix safety hazards.

The ULA's deposition says that the ministry's budget for fixing the hazards dropped from NIS 79 per pupil in 2001 to NIS 18 this year. The budget for renovating structures has also been drastically slashed.

The Education Ministry wrote in its response to the High Court petition that the local authorities are "directly responsible for ensuring the safety of the institutions within their jurisdiction" and that their role is mainly to "address the safety issue."

However, the ministry also said that "following the authorities' partial reports, the ministry does not have a list of schools in which the authorities have completed the annual examination they are obliged to conduct."

In addition, the ministry said that it was "incapable of checking and following up on the thousands of schools in the various authorities to make sure that all the safety hazards were fixed."

Referring to the petitioners' request to stop using schools that have not been checked, the ministry said "it is difficult to prevent using many schools on the eve of the new school year, before receiving the schools' detailed reports about their condition."

Meanwhile, the Education Ministry, the Home Front Command and a private engineering company will conduct an experiment to determine whether steel sun screens could protect classrooms in an earthquake. The screens will be installed in rooms in two Jerusalem schools earmarked for demolition during the vacation in October.