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Live: Shetland school closure debate

SHETLAND Islands Council’s education and families committee meets this morning to debate proposals to close 10 Shetland schools.

Papers for today’s meeting can be viewed at http://www.shetland.gov.uk/coins/agenda.asp?meetingid=3665

10.58am The special meeting to discuss the Blueprint has been set for 14 September. Legal chief Jan Riise says it was the only date available and site visits for the planning committee will be moved to accommodate it.

10.44am Sandison stresses the need for accurate and honest figures and the council must not waver from the tough decisions that need to be made.

Wishart calls for consensus of deferring any decision until a special meeting of the education and familiies committee meeting is held. No one demurs. The matter will be debated next month, a date yet to be set, once more financial information is available.

10.42am Frank Robertson said the lack of detailed information was the main problem that arose at Aith meeting. We should not look at this in “silos”, it needs an overall picture, he says.

Peter Campbell says studies should be done of every school in Shetland. We need to have a central policy and vision for the way forward to carry the electorate with us and we don’t have that at the moment. Wishart: “That’s for the full council.”

Stout: one of the things we need to understand is that an Aith parent has the same goal as us here. We are all looking at the best for Shetland 15 years on. If we have a policy on centralisation gathering dust, this is so fundamental we need to understand the impact on 15 years ahead of what we do. We have to keep that in the back of our mind.

Stout: “We need to tell people we are not galloping into cuts.” Wishart: “We are not galloping into anything.”

10:38am McIntyre withdraws his seconding of Smith’s motion once he realises it means the matter will go to the full council before coming back to the committee. Gary Robinson steps in and seconds in his stead.

Robinson warns there is a problem for the rest of the council if this is delayed beyond this cycle of meetings, so Smith proposes a special education and families committee meeting before full council on 20 September. Budge promises to make information available for that meeting. “This council needs to save money,” she says.

Cleaver accepts that. Stout asks what information is needed. Wishart says travel costs. Smith says he does not think it’s necessary to get the costs down to the last penny, but they need indicative costs. “It’s any other costs that have not been included,” Smith says.

Stout: “My concern is there is a lot of relevant information that has come back from the Aith meeting and at this stage with the level of crisis in finances the council has, we may need to look at more radical solutions, eg using digital technology (which could affect staffing numbers).”

Manson: how many staff do we have? 3,000 she’s told. We pay an island allowance of £1,800 to every employee. That could be a saving of £5.4m. Some of the wages we pay they wouldn’t miss it, it’s sweetie money. Any parent could not refuse that, a ferry user could give that up. Wishart: “That’s not for the education committee.”

10:30am Peter Campbell says he thinks we are doing community a disservice if we defer everything.

Billy Fox supports the idea of it coming back to the committee. He adds to Cleaver’s amendment that there needs to be a focus on travel costs and travel times. He is sceptical that it would be reasonable for children furthest away from schools to travel such long distances and calls for a pilot.

Cleaver accepts. “I have no problem with that.”

10:21am Gary Cleaver moves amendment after being told it will go to full council bypassing this commitee. He agrees more financial information is needed, but wants it to come first to this committee as originally planned. Billy Fox seconds.

Wishart now introduces report saying there are some “grave misunderstandings about the report. We will not close Aith tomorrow or go ahead willy nilly”. This is a working document, she says. Each proposed change will be dealt with individually, however we are concerned indicative financial information is not complete and concerned a competent decision can’t be made to today.

George Smith says we need a plan to take education and the council forward. He came onto to the council believing the financial situation wasn’t as bad as thought, but things are worse than he thought and radical action is needed while delivering the best possible front line services. “I fully support this plan but as the chair says, the report doesn’t have the full financial information to make a competent decision.” There are other costs that will occur, eg additional transport costs.

Smith moves motion, but places on record appreciation of staff for working beyond the call of duty. Going to move that we defer discussion on report today and seek further financial information. Tom McIntyre seconds.

10:20am George Smith moves the plans and says it’s is the right way forward. No argument. Olnafirth closure is delayed. Now onto Blueprint!

10:19am Now onto Olnafirth consultation. Budge explains that the paper suggests further postponing until after the Commission for Rural Education reports in November after a judicial review of western isles school closures. She realises a delay will cause further uncertainty and that some parents have chosen not to place their children there because of the threat.

Gary Cleaver talks about a possible legal challenge to any decision. Budge says legally we can go ahead and use 2010 act, but COSLA is asking is to think very carefully. We are looking at all the challenges to do it, but we have to take into consideration all the aspects of going ahead at this time before commission has reported.

10:15am Vice chair George Smith praises staff for achieving all but £20,000 of projected savings

10:12am David Sandison asks to identify £1.9m savings in recurring savings. Reduced secondary staffing, director Helen Budge  says. Also taking teachers out of primary schools as class sizes fall. Also looked at swimming and PE tution, reduced cleaning, reduction in supply teachers, not providing science technology fair, technician costs, hired out international education staff to Aberdeen, and reduced management staff by two in children and families.

Library savings include charging for loans of DVDs, some staffin reorganisation too. Sandison says this is more than he was looking for, but is really useful.

10:07am Finance chief James Gray is once again warning councillors that they will be bankrupt if they don’t control their spending. He is talking to the first item on the agenda: management accounts for education and families committee for the first quarter.

Shortfall on recurring savings is £20,000, the management accounts show a £750,000 underpsend on schools which has created a £951,000, but in reality that is money that is “as ggod as spent”. He wants to get away from this kind of reporting. Only genuine underpsend is £215,000 which relates to vacancies across schools, the rest is just time differences.

10.00am Chair Vaila Wishart has opened the meeting. Numbers in the council chamber are not huge. Just as well they did not book the Garrison!

The first folk have started turning up at Lerwick Town Hall for today’s crucial meeting on radical proposals to close secondaries in Sandwick, Whalsay, Aith, Baltasound and Skerries; and primaries in Sandness, Olnafirth, Urafirth, North Roe and Burravoe. The first to arrive were former councillors Florence Grains and Iris Hughson (formerly Hawkins) with her new husband Magnus.

There is space for around 20 members of the public in the council chamber and a further 30 in  the Registrar’s Office which has a video link. This is because a Lerwick couple are preparing the big room upstairs for their wedding tommorow, which they have planned for more than a year.

Members of the committee include religious representatives Reverend Tom MacIntyre, Radina McKay and Martin Tregonning. Council members are Peter Campbell, Gary Cleaver, Billy Fox, Andrea Manson, Frank Robertson, Gary Robinson, David Sandison, George Smith, Michael Stout and chair Vaila Wishart.