In 2011 the Department of education bought a four-acre site at Merrymeeting, Rathnew, Co Wicklow on which to build a new school building for what is now St. Coen’s Catholic primary school.
The Department subsequently got planning permission to squeeze a second school into the St. Coen’s site though it is barely big enough for one school. The St. Coen’s school play area, while it is bigger than the proposed Gaelscoil play area, is already too small for its 250 pupils so the St. Coen’s drop-off area has to double as an additional play area. Each school is designed to eventually accommodate 500 pupils.
Pressure is being put on Gaelscoil Chill Mhantáin, now based two miles away in Wicklow town, to move to 1.2 -acres on the Rathnew site.
Ironically, in 2002 another site, of 1.7-acres was bought by the Department from the Dominican Order at a cost of €571,500 for the Gaelscoil on the outskirts of Wicklow town when it was expected to develop into a school of just eight classrooms was deemed unsuitable when the ambitions of the school increased. The department instead agreed to pay rent of €118,742 a year to lease land and prefabs for the Gaelscoil at the Rathnew site. But the Rathnew site is actually smaller than the one rejected 12 years ago.
The Gaelscoil is currently housed in a former vec school located in Wicklow town which is under the control of the Kildare and Wicklow education and Training Board (which is ultimately under the control of the Department). Over €250,000 has been paid by the Department to upgrade the school. The site of about three -acres is zoned for educational use and allows for football, hurling, soccer and other sports.
At the cost of a small percentage of the money that the Department of education is proposing to spend on the new school building, the existing Gaelscoil building in Wicklow town could be brought up to modern standards. There are no apparent reasons why this location cannot be used long-term; and moving the Gaelscoil to Rathnew, though favoured by the Gaelscoil’s current board of management, would be against the wishes of the vast majority of parents of the Gaelscoil, St. Coen’s parents and local residents.
Over 50% of the children attending Gaelscoil Chill Mhantáin live in Wicklow Town. (The remainder live in rathdrum, Brittas Bay, Ashford, Rathnew, Glenealy and Redcross). If the school is located on the Merrymeeting site, then the vast majority of these children will be transported to and from school each day in cars. A spokesman for Parents of Wicklow Gaelscoil highlighted the Department of Education’s own guidelines, which stipulate a 16-classroom site should have three -acres of land. He said there would not be enough space on the site for the children to play or for bicycle parking, a requirement of planning permission. He added that a recently built Educate Together school in Wicklow town had been given a four-acre site.
So why the push to build a new building for the Gaelscoil in Rathnew now?
The land was purchased by the Department a few days before the FF-GP coalition left office, suggesting perhaps it was a political decision.
The Department paid €1,708,500 for the site in January 2011. This price was at least five times the true value of the site. A valuation commissioned by the Department in September 2007 from Douglas Newman Good – at the height of the boom in land prices – had valued the land at €1.25m. That valuation had weighed the fact that “a recent sale of a development site of .304 hectares situated in Rathnew with full planning permission for 8 apartments was confirmed sold for €800,000” and that a boarding school in Rathnew on 26.3 hectares had sold in 2005 for €14.95m. Clearly those prices no longer pertained in 2011. There are obvious problems with the site. According to Tomás Ó Maonaile, a former chair of the Gaelscoil’s board of management (and chairman of its founding committee), “the price paid was an inordinate amount for the land in question, given:
a. The size of the plot.
b. The topography of the plot (it is on a steep slope and described as ‘hilly’ in Department of Education documents).
c. The need to break and remove a large amount of rock on the site.
d. The economic circumstances of the state at the time the plot was bought (January 2011!).
e. The location of the plot.
f. The highly exposed nature of the site which requires that buildings have extra fortification.
g. The zoning on the site.
h. The Vendor has retained 2 separate rights of way over the plot, one traversing the plot from the east boundary to the west boundary and the other traversing the site from the North boundary to the south boundary. These rights of way may have serious implications for the future use of the site.
i. During the negotiations to buy the site the vendor agreed to lift any burden limiting the use of the site to the amalgamated school.
j. The vendor received in excess of €1m in rental payments from the Department of Education. For part of this site prior to the purchasing of the site by the Department of Education.
k. The availability of many alternative, more suitable sites in the area at much lower cost”.
In a letter to the Public Accounts Committee, Ó Maonaile has claimed; “Of great concern to me was that the Chairman of the Board of Management of the new amalgamated school (who had also been a member of the Board of Management of one of the schools to be amalgamated) was intimately involved in the decision making process to buy the land while at the same time having a legal interest in the land which was being sold to the Department of Education. There is a clear and a serious conflict of interest here”. Indeed the conflict would have arisen when the land was being leased. The chairman of the board (of St. Coen’s) is a local builder, Michael O’Sullivan. Clearly there would have been issues for Mr O’Sullivan under ethics guidelines for state bodies, such as schools. “state Bodies Guidelines” was published by the Department of finance in March 1992. The guidelines were updated in 2001, 2009 and 2016.
At relevant times these guidelines (both 2001 and 2009) required:
“On appointment to a Board of a state body, each member should furnish to the Secretary of the body details relating to…business interests…which could involve a conflict of interest or could materially influence the member in relation to the performance of his/her functions as a member of the Board”; and
“Should a matter relating to the interests of the Chairperson arise, he/she should depute the Deputy Chairperson or another Director to chair the Board meeting and should absent himself/ herself when the Board is deliberating or deciding on a matter in which the Chairperson has an interest”; and
“A Director should absent himself/herself when the Board is deliberating or deciding on matters in which that member (other than in his/her capacity as a member of the Board) or a person or body connected with the member has an interest)”.
There are strong rumours locally that a senior politician was in some way involved in the land-purchase negotiations.
Should the Gaelscoil move back to Rathnew there will be difficulties: the architects have already requested “an uplift” in fees on 11/1/2016 due to the “difficulty and complexity of the site”.
The Department paid €1,708,500 for the site in January 2011. This price was at least five times the true value of the site.
The projected budgeted cost of building the new school is currently at €4,731,140.07 (29/7/15) having already increased twice since stage 1. Considering the upturn in the economy this will have increased further before the building works commence. However, worse still, ‘abnormal costs’ are currently over €1,176,821 due to the complexity of the site. For example over €25,000 is budgeted for a “main entrance canopy due to high wind exposure” The architects state that the “site is very tight and there is very little option for biomass [heating-system] location due to varying levels around the site and subsequent lack of access for serving a biomass. Hence the underground option mooted is preferred” even though it is “more expensive and may not be viable”.
The Department of Education’s Technical Guidance Document on the Identification and suitability Assessment of Sites for Primary schools (2012) states that “A site presenting issues that may give rise to significant abnormal development costs should be avoided”. Ó Maonaile argues that in law this document creates a legitimate expectation for stakeholders that its terms will be observed: “The Gaelscoil Chill Mhantáin community have a legitimate expectation that their new school will be built on a 3 -acre (1.6ha) site.
The Combined Rathnew school community have a legitimate expectation that their new school will be built on a 3 -acre (1.6 ha) site”.
The site itself is too small to house a 16-classroom school. Wicklow County Council – not subject to the same pressures as the Education Department – described it as a “substandard sized site” (letter from Wicklow Co Council to Education Minister, 14/12/2015) allowing no room for expansion. The government’s own development plan for school campuses states that “new schools will be built to grow with their communities and to provide for more interactive child friendly model of education”. The site at Merrymeeting does not allow for any expansion as there is no green area at all and the play areas come right up to the boundary wall with the adjoining school. As stated by the Project Design Team at a ‘stakeholders meeting’ (21/09/15) “future expansion of this school is not possible due to the restricted site”.
The Department’s quantity surveyors have said:
“The abnormal costs at 39% as a proportion of the Basic Building costs are high, primarily due to the particularly challenging and tight site with its steep gradient which dictates a large reduce-level excavation”.
Ultimately, it makes no economic sense to place the school on this site when there is a much cheaper, more suitable alternative available.
Under the Wicklow County Development Plan 2013-2017, there is a number of sites zoned educational/community, all of which are bigger than the planned site at Merrymeeting. There is one at the top of the Marlton road which is at the start of the town relief road. The abnormal costs for the Merrymeeting site of over €1,100,000 could be spent on purchasing this 8.7 -acre site which would future-proof the school. It would also provide the space and possibility of a Gaelscoil secondary school to share the same site, supporting official goals of both the local Authority and the Department of Education.
As a result of their handling of the above issues most parents in the Gaelscoil have lost confidence in the current Board of Management and its ability to run the school for the benefit of the school community.
Whose good is or was served by this policy scandal and why should innocent children bear the consequences?