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Beneficiary of inflated school price resigns

The Department of Education is under scrutiny as to why it is putting a Gaelscoil under pressure to move from an ideal site in Wickow to an overpriced site in Rathnew

The Department of Education is under pressure to explain why it bought a site in Rathnew at an inflated price and why it continues to pressurise a Gaelscoil to move to that site.

In 2011 the Department of Education bought a four-acre site in Rathnew, Co Wicklow (Merrymeeting) 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, a Gaelscoil, into the St Coen’s site though it is barely big enough for St Coen’s. 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 and the St Coen’s staff car-park doubles as an additional play area. The St Coen’s staff are now parking on the Gaelscoil site. Each school is designed to eventually accommodate 500 pupils.

According to the minutes of a Planning & Building Unit meeting held on 12th November 2013, “Betty Regan said that the DE S had no choice but to put the Gaelscoil on the (Rathnew) site”. What factors made the DE S come to the conclusion that there was no choice?

In 2008 the Department’s Senior Architect, Helen O’Neill stated that a suitable size site for a 16-classroom school in Wicklow was 3-4 acres. Strangely, however, she has had no problem in trying to build on a much smaller site in Rathnew. Though the Department of Education denies it the board of management of Gaelscoil Chill Mhantáin, now based two miles away in Wicklow Town, was totally opposed to the move to 1.2 acres of the Rathnew site when they were told there was no choice but to move in 2013. Pressure is being put on the Gaelscoil.

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 in Wicklow Town when it was expected to develop into a school of just eight classrooms but it was deemed unsuitable when the ambitions of the school increased.

Documentation obtained under Freedom of Information legislation by Village also suggests that several other sites were available free of charge to the Department, because it suited developers to be seen to be providing social facilities such as schools in their developments.

However, the Department instead agreed to pay rent of €118,742 a year to lease land and prefabs for the Gaelscoil at the Rathnew site though it is 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 (KWETB, which is ultimately under the control of the Department).

The Department of Education told Village: “KWETB has plans for this building, but nevertheless was willing to delay the implementation of these plans and accede to a request from the Department to permit the use of the building to accommodate the Gaelscoil. The basis of the KWETB’s agreement with the Department was that the Gaelscoil will vacate this building when the new school is constructed and thus allow the former Abbey Community College building to be restored to the KWETB”.

The Gaelscoil’s current location, a former VEC school located at the Abbey in Wicklow town.

Over €250,000 has been paid by the Department to upgrade the school. Its current site of about three acres is zoned for educational use. At this location the children enjoy a large green space on which they can play during school breaks and where after-school camogie, hurling and football training takes place. There is also a large indoor hall available. In other words the site is perfectly suitable.

On the Rathnew site all that will be available is a small hard surface play area and a much smaller hall. If the Gaelscoil stays at its current location the children attending St. Coen’s can also have their own green play area.

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.

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. When buying the site DE S negotiated with the vendor on the basis of a price per acre. However, part of what they bought was already a public road. This in itself should have reduced the value by 20-30%.

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:

  1. The size of the plot.
  2. The topography of the plot (it is on a steep slope and described as ‘hilly’ in Department of Education documents).
  3. The need to break and remove a large amount of rock on the site.
  4. The economic circumstances of the State at the time the plot was bought (January 2011!).
  5. The location of the plot.
  6. The highly exposed nature of the site which requires that buildings have extra fortification.
  7. The zoning on the site.
  8. 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.
  9. During the negotiations to buy the site the vendor agreed to lift any burden limiting the use of the site to the amalgamated school.
  10. 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.
  11. The availability of many alternative, more suitable sites in the area at much lower cost.

Jason Kearney of the Department of Education adverted to this in internal correspondence obtained by Village under Freedom of Information legislation. On 4 November 2009 he emailed his departmental colleague Gavan O’Leary: “Gavan, Re Wicklow below – am I wrong in assuming that the site we owned in Wicklow is to house the Gaelscoil – and if so does that not negate the need to acquire lands from ‘O’Sullivan’?”. Crucially, O’Leary replied: “Jason, The advice from the P&T [Professional and Technical Staff] side was that the site we own would not house the Gaelscoil and that we need to consider alternatives”.

These concerns were mostly shared by Quantity Surveyors McCullagh, Lupton, Quinn detailing the reasons for the uplift in costs from €2,850,000 to €4,731,000: “The particularly restrictive site dictated a very unique solution (split level, 2 storey, part 3 storey structure) involving non standard construction including piling, retaining walls, tanking, roof play areas etc. This was further compounded by the large number of abnormal cost items encountered with the site and the co-ordination/measurement of the works associated with the adjacent school project.

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 reducelevel excavation”.

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”. The Guidance Document also state that 3 acres is required for a 16 classroom primary school. 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 proposed site for the Gaelscoil

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 on the eve of a government’s collapse – 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 are completely inadequate and come right up to the boundary wall with the adjoining school and also to a metal fence which separates the school grounds from the public road. There is a 2.5 metre drop from one part of the play area to the other. 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”.

Ultimately, it makes no economic sense to place the school on this site when there is a much cheaper, more suitable alternative available even if the decision is taken to move the Gaelscoil from Wicklow Town.

Under the Wicklow County Development Plan 2013-2017, there is still 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.

In a letter to the Public Accounts Committee Ó Maonaile claimed; “Of great concern to me was that the Chairman of the Board of Management of the new amalgamated school (In fact he was also 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) was a well-connected local builder, Michael O’Sullivan. He resigned following an earlier Village article on this affair.

According to the minutes of a Planning & Building Unit meeting held on 12th November 2013:

“Michael O’Sullivan requested that the Gaelscoil keep the information re their positioning on the site until St Joseph’s GNS and St Ernan’s BN S building commenced”.

There are rumours locally that a senior politician was in some way involved in the land-purchase negotiations.

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.

Parents of children attending St Coen’s have recently written to their TDs asking that they use their influence with Minister Bruton to retain the site, currently earmarked for Gaelscoil Chill Mhantáin, as a playing field.

They highlight:

1) That they were promised the entire site which would have included a green area to play sports.

2) The Department of Health’s own National Physical Activity Plan to fight obesity involves 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical exercise at least 3 times a week, but this will not be possible if we lose our green area.

3) Huge safety issues involving vehicles and pedestrians both entering and exiting the site of their school. The layout has been designed for both schools to use the same entrance and exit.

Whose good is or was served by this policy scandal and why should innocent children bear the consequences?

A DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION SPOKESPERSON TOLD VILLAGE:

“The Department strongly refutes the allegations made. This article does not present a balanced view of the situation. It is important to point out that both the school patron and the Board of Management of Gaelscoil Chill Mhantáin fully support the proposed plans for the school.

The site at Merrymeeting on which Gaelscoil Chill Mhantáin is to be permanently located was acquired on the basis of a site selection process. The landowner had been granted planning permission for school provision on the site. The Department’s technical personnel assessed the site and deemed it suitable for the provision of school accommodation.

The acquisition price was in line with the procured valuation and took into consideration multiple factors and associated benefits for this Department. It is important to clarify that the decision to acquire the site was made by Department of Education and Skills personnel and was not influenced by external parties”.

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