In Battle Over Budget, Ramle Mayor Cuts Off Local School From Internet

Online spat between principal and mayor ends with students losing connection.

The city of Ramle has taken a 600-student elementary school offline after an e-mail confrontation between the mayor and the school's principal over the municipality's practice of deducting from the school budget to cover debts to the city.

"All the students, along with the pedagogic and administrative staff, make daily use of the Internet through 120 computers, for the purposes of teaching and learning," said Rami Jubran, an attorney for the Adalah legal center for Arab rights in Israel, in a letter to Ramle Mayor Yoel Lavi protesting the decision. "This resource is an inseparable part of the education system and organizational activity in the school, without which many educational programs are paralyzed."

Jubran said it was illegal to cut off the Al-Omaria school from the Internet because that bill is paid up. The students' Internet access was cut off last Tuesday after Lavi threatened to do just that if the principal, Imad Azbarga, sent him another e-mail complaining about funding. Azbarga has not sent another e-mail to Lavi since receiving the threat, Jubran said.

All the same, the computers used by the administration were knocked offline yesterday, cutting off access to student records and the school's financial system. Until now, the school has been accessing the Internet through the municipal online network.

The municipality said the Internet cutoff was temporary.

"The Internet is not a city of refuge for those seeking to harass, threaten or impinge upon the principles of good governance," the city said in a statement. "The temporary cutoff is meant to convey a clear message and to set boundaries."

The city says the debts are not the only problem. It accuses the school of breaching several regulations, including registering children from outside Ramle and operating a food kiosk without a permit. The school denies the allegations.

Jubran said the debts are caused by parents' failure to pay the full fees they owe to the school, which is supposed to send the money to the municipality. This shortfall prompted the city to hold on to part of the budget it gets from the treasury, which is supposed to go to the school to fund the electricity and water bills, cleaning materials and other administrative expenses.

It was this practice of deducting funds - which Jubran says has no legal basis - that prompted Azbarga to send irate e-mails to Lavi, asking the city to send the school all the money it is allocated by the national government.

"What about your obligation to uphold the law and good governance as the head of the local authority, or have you decided to ignore that matter?" Azbarga wrote in one of the e-mails.

Lavi wrote back that he would cut off the school's Internet access if Azbarga continued e-mailing him.

"Anyone who isn't fulfilling municipal directives, which are unequivocally under the municipality's authority, shouldn't talk to me or write to me!" wrote Lavi. "Another mail to me from you and I will order for you to be cut off from the municipal network!"