A new George Town Primary School – a project the Government shelved last month for budgetary reasons – may go ahead this year after all, thanks to a fresh approach to financing it.
Minister of Education Alden McLaughlin confirmed Monday that the project was back on, pending the outcome of a new invitation to tender that will commence in the next week or so.
‘There’s no guarantee that we’re going to get a satisfactory bid, but given the level of interest, I think we will,’ said Mr. McLaughlin.
The key to revitalising the project was the offer by a contractor to finance it.
Mr. McLaughlin said he had confirmed with Financial Secretary Kenneth Jefferson the financing proposal would not cause any problems with compliance of the Public Management and Finance Law.
The project appeared dead for at least the short term when Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts announced last month during his Strategic Policy Statement speech in Legislative Assembly that the country couldn’t afford to build the George Town Primary School and the Beulah Smith High School in West Bay. He cited a projected drop of government revenues due to the downturn in the global economy as the reason the government couldn’t afford to build the two schools.
Mr. McLaughlin said he had previously held a series of meetings with the teachers and parents of students at George Town Primary School and that they were all very excited about the prospects of finally getting a new school.
‘They were promised a new school for many, many years,’ he said. ‘They made me promise to deliver it.’
Mr. McLaughlin said the parents and teachers were disappointed to hear their school would not be rebuilt anytime soon when they were told in November.
‘[Telling the parents and teachers the project was off] was one of the toughest things I’ve done since I took office,’ Mr. McLaughlin said. ‘I left there thinking that if there was anyway to get it done, I needed to pursue it.’
As a compromise, the teachers and students gave Mr. McLaughlin a list of improvements that needed to be made if they were not going to get a new school built in the near future.
Among the many improvements suggested were covered walkways so the children could walk between modular classroom without getting wet in the rainy season and the creation of staff room for the teachers.
‘It would cost… hundreds of thousands of dollars,’ said Mr. McLaughlin. ‘It might be closer to one million to tell you the truth.’
Spending a lot of money for a temporary fix was not the ideal solution, but it was something Mr. McLaughlin said he was willing to do, given the poor conditions at George Town Primary.
‘George Town Primary is without a doubt one of the best primary schools on the island,’ Mr. McLaughlin said, referring to the academic performance of the students who go there. ‘But it’s operating in some of the poorest facilities.’
The older building of the school was severely damaged by flooding in January 2003. Hurricane Ivan caused more damage in September 2004. After that, the old building was occupied by squatters made homeless by the hurricane.
After becoming the education minister in May 2005, Mr. McLaughlin had the old buildings bulldozed and modular classrooms installed. More and more modular classrooms have been added, and there are a total of nine on site now.
After the announcement was made in Legislative Assembly that the George Town Primary School project was being indefinitely delayed, a contractor approached Mr. McLaughlin and said he would be build the school and finance it.
‘The construction with financing component will not require government to make any payments for a period of five years,’ he said, adding that perhaps the government would still make some payments. ‘With the interest rates so low, we could probably handle an interest-only arrangement.’
With a new possible way of making the project a reality, Mr. McLaughlin said he invited all 13 contractors who originally expressed an interest in building the George Town Primary School to a meeting on 22 December. Six of those contractors showed up and Mr. McLaughlin told them of his intention to re-tender the project with the financing component included.
The re-tendering doesn’t necessarily mean the project will go ahead, however.
‘We’re not going to accept some proposal that comes in way above our pre-tender estimates,’ Mr. McLaughlin said.