The construction of three new high schools to serve the students of Grand Cayman could have been a crowning achievement of government, to be shared by successive administrations, for the benefit of future generations of Caymanians.
Instead, through reckless mismanagement, the government’s largest capital project ever ventured has degenerated into perhaps the single-greatest public sector economic disaster in the history of the Cayman Islands. The blame for this failure should rightfully be borne by politicians of all political stripes, as well as top civil servants and government contractors, but the consequences, of course, fall upon the shoulders of taxpayers and the backs of our students.
From the outset, the high schools project was, perhaps, too big not too fail. Following years of discussion over the need to build one new high school to ease the very real problem of overcrowding at the existing John Gray campus, in 2005 Cabinet approved not one, not two, but three new high schools, at a projected cost of $95 million.
Most of our readers know quite well what happened next: Delays and design changes, unforeseen circumstances and politicians’ predictable meddling, construction crew walkouts and budget overruns. The price tag of the three projects ballooned to more than $170 million, as of December 2013 (not counting the millions of dollars in annual operating expenses).
And yet only one of the three high schools has opened, Clifton Hunter in Frank Sound. The new John Gray in George Town exists only as a persistently derelict construction site. And the third, Beulah Smith in West Bay, never progressed beyond the empty-field stage.
Now, we use the figure of $170 million because it’s the one cited in a recent report by the Office of the Auditor General. But it’s just an estimate, and a low one at that. The actual cost will probably remain unknown because, as Auditor General Alastair Swarbrick has stated, the Ministry of Education “lacked formal record keeping of the project.” In other words, the ministry, which Mr. Swarbrick said was not cooperative with auditors, didn’t adequately track how much of the public’s money was being spent, why it was being spent, or on what it was being spent.
This “increased the risk for fraud and corruption,” Mr. Swarbrick said.
In particular, former Minister of Education Rolston Anglin merits special mention for his role in the Clifton Hunter debacle. According to government auditors, Mr. Anglin pressured his staff to incorrectly record payments to contractors, steered contracts to local companies and gave those local companies flexible treatment when judging the quality of their work – adding to costs and delays – in violation of Cayman’s Public Management and Finance Law.
As Mr. Swarbrick put it, Mr. Anglin’s involvement was “outside the laws in place for management of public funds” – a phrase which we interpret to mean that neither Mr. Anglin nor anyone else will be held accountable for any laws that may have been broken.
It gets worse.
On top of their cavalier attitudes toward the integrity of taxpayers’ money, Cayman officials demonstrated an equally callous disregard for the safety of Caymanian students, as well as teachers and staff, by opening up Clifton Hunter in fall 2012, before the building had received a final certificate of occupancy — the Planning Department’s official “seal of approval” that a facility is up to code.
With two full school years under its belt, Clifton Hunter has still not received that certificate of occupancy, and audit team leader Martin Ruben said that (as of just two weeks ago) there are still outstanding safety concerns at the campus that have not been addressed.
Massive cost overruns, undue political interference and, what is most loathsome of all, a contempt for the physical health of children. Add in the ministry’s enduring attempts to obfuscate missteps and cover up misdeeds, and it all begins to add up to … dare we say it … “a class action” – to be pursued by the Caymanian people, if not at the courthouse, then at the polling station.