STATEMENT BY LIAM BURKE TO DAIL COMMITTEE ON THE DELIVERY OF SCHOOLS
Whitecross School is situated in Julianstown, Co. Meath. In 2002 the number of pupils in the school was 171 with 6 teachers. Over the following 10 years the school has grown from that to up 445 pupils with 22 teachers. The present enrolment is 430 pupils.
Although located in Julianstown, with the Stamullen/Julianstown Parish as the official catchment area, the school has continually opened its doors to pupils who whose parents had difficulty finding places in neighbouring areas, such as Balbriggan, south Drogheda, Laytown and Bettystown.
We are also proud of the fact that with Mosney Accommodation Centre located nearby, we have consistently enrolled and cared for pupils seeking asylum in Ireland. In 2002 we had 2 pupils from Mosney. That number went up to 45 pupils at one point and now we have over 20 pupils. We also enrolled 10 Syrian refugees during this and the previous school year. We are quite proud as a staff in the way we integrated these children and parents into our school community.
We are also open to special needs pupils and have consistently enrolled and support such pupils to the best of our ability.
However, our teaching facilities are unsatisfactory to say the least. The whole school community is completely frustrated by the process in place for delivering a school to our village. All around us school buildings have been completed including a number of buildings for schools that did not exist in 2006, when were first approved for a Major Project. LB
Below is a synopsised version of our ‘Building Programme’.
1. Letter from Liam Burke in September 2003 to Noel Dempsey outlining the pressure on schools in East Meath with regard to all schools, but in particular Whitecross School, as we had no available classrooms, apart from the then 30 year old wooden units, which all inspectors to the school have agreed are not fit for purpose. Yet 15 years later we have two First Classes and one learning support class working from this building.
2. Similar letter to Fergus O’Dowd in November 2003
3. Letter from Liam Burke to Department and district inspector in December 2003 outlining above
4. Letter to John Bruton; December 2003
5. In March 2004 two department officials visited Whitecross School and agreed that there was an urgent need for extra accommodation and also a need to upgrade the existing accommodation
6. Mary Wallace visited the school in May 2004 and agreed that the accommodation needs are indeed urgent
7. Parents coming to school complaining about unsuitability of wooden prefabricated units and the need to replace these. Issue addressed with department officials; nothing done
8. In January 2005, Board applied for a Major Works Grant to renovate existing rooms and build an extension
9. In October 2006, I composed a letter on behalf of principals in the East Meath area outlining the critical state of school accommodation in relation to local schools
10. DES responded eventually and in October 2006 Whitecross was promised a visit from DES officials to examine the needs of the school and that we would be included in the 2007 building programme
11. In December 2006, Fr. Declan Kelly (chairperson) and Liam Burke were invited to Tullamore for a meeting with a view to outlining how the school building project would be delivered
12. In 2007 the Board was identified as the client for the project and we proceeded to tender for a Design Team. By 2007 we had the tenders organised at a significant cost in terms of time and finance for the Board and in particular the school principal.
13. With the help of a building sub-committee the Design Team was picked in each of the 4 disciplines and the nominated companies were sent to Tullamore
14. Communication from January 2008 to April 2008 was non-existent from DES. Phone calls and emails were not returned. We did not know what the situation was with the Design Team which was nominated by the Board. Queries were coming from the nominated companies and we were not able to get any response from Tullamore
15. In April the then Minister invited herself to Whitecross. She was greeted warmly and shown around the school and agreed that our accommodation needs were indeed urgent
16. Diarmuid Everard (now Chairperson) was promised a response the following Monday from her private secretary in relation to the situation re design team. No response was forthcoming
17. In June 2008 DES communicated with school that our extension was of ‘the highest priority.’ Nothing happening however
18. In July 2009, Diarmuid Everard and Liam Burke met with the then Minister O’Keeffe and Thomas Byrne TD. The minister agreed with our need for an extension and promised, despite cutbacks, that he would support an extension at Whitecross
19. By 2010 we have 4 classrooms that are fit for purpose, 2 small unsuitable classrooms and 10 prefabs (at considerable cost to the exchequer). Six prefabs cost €80,000 per year rent since 2010.
20. After lobbying hard with local politicians during 2010, our project kicked off again and by the end of 2010, a new Design Team was nominated and agreed
21. Design Team, Board members and DES officials meet in Tullamore in May 2011 and we are all feeling positive that everything is on track and there will be no further delays
22. In March 2012 our project was announced again by DES and it was stated that the sod would be turned in 2014! Emails and phone calls re project typically either unanswered or waiting weeks for a reply
23. General meeting of parents to fast-track the project by offering to relocate classes to a now vacant school in Drogheda. Agreed by one DES official that it looked like feasible plan. On the morning of the meeting another (more senior) official rang to say he would not support the proposal; April 2012
24. Board officially the client but fast-track and/or cost saving proposals consistently over-ruled at department level
25. In October 2012 Minister Ruairi Quinn, responding to a Dail question promised construction would begin in 2014/15
26. In March 2013 another meeting took place in Tullamore; Board, Design Team and DES officials. Meeting indicated that project would begin in 2014
27. In December 2013 the school was informed that we had received full planning for the project
28. In May 2014, architects are predicting a 2015 construction start
29. By April 2015 the tender documents are almost complete for a two phase construction project when DES decide that the school project should be a one phase project. Over the preceding years the Board mooted and lobbied for a one phase project; offering accommodation in a vacant school in Drogheda and when that was rejected in Tullamore board officials met with board members from Gormanston College who also offered classrooms. The idea behind running a one phase project was that it was quicker and probably safer.
30. So very late in the day; with tender documents ready; DES decides to change construction process from two to one stage project. This results in significant delay as the tender process has to be revisited all over again.
31. Planning permission for temporary accommodation needs to be sought and approved. This eventually happens in March 2015
32. More lobbying through 2016 to highlight the issues
33. Meeting with DES officials, Tullamore in November 2016. One senior official unhappy with BoM highlighting history of project and no hesitation in sharing his opinion.
34. Delay with Design Team through 2017; mainly, I feel due to manpower issues and more lucrative projects.
35. Cost uplift since 2011 to 2018; €2.9 million to €5.30 million and rising!
- Lack of perspective on behalf of DES officials on the needs of Whitecross School
- Neighbouring schools all completed with excellent facilities; Whitecross left in limbo. Some local schools have even surplus accommodation
- Our closest neighbouring school (Gaelscoil) almost complete new build, and this school did not exist when we missed our initial project in 2008
- Children First Act requires schools to ensure children are safe during school hours; one my big concerns that there are 26 external doors, the school cannot be locked down and anyone off the street can access the school.
- One of my more stressful incidents was having to kill a rat in one of the toilets within our ‘not fit for purpose’ wooden prefabs in December 2017. This is not the first time I have had to deal with such an issue. I also had to keep this fact out of the public domain as parents would be up in arms
- During wet weather, both teachers and children have to deal with crossing the yard from prefab to main building etc. This is not acceptable
- I do have to complement our teaching staff for putting up with third world teaching facilities, where many aspects of the curriculum are either difficult or impossible to deliver, but their patience is wearing thin and I don’t blame them
- During the recent snow days, I came back to a number of leaks related to the unsuitable prefab accommodation
- On a personal basis the building issue has been a great source of stress and frustration for me. I admire our pupils and parents for putting up with the lack of facilities, but after a huge commitment to Whitecross over the years this issue is my greatest source of disappointment as a committed school principal. Equally our present Chairperson shares this frustration and disappointment with a system who has promised a building for so long and fails to deliver
- Prefabs cost 2005 to 2018; €1.5m!!
LIAM BURKE, PRINCIPAL