A new primary school in Bodden Town is not part of government’s immediate plans and is not needed at this stage, based on projections for likely student numbers in the near future, Education Minister Tara Rivers told legislators last week.
“This motion is calling for some forward thinking, some planning. We need to have a plan.” – Al Suckoo, independent legislator
Ms. Rivers acknowledged there has been a rise in student numbers in the growing district, but said the increase is not enough to support spending an estimated $11.5 million on a new school.
The minister was speaking in response to a private members’ motion from independent legislator Alva Suckoo calling for a third primary school in the district to be built by 2018.She added that the overall school population is not growing at a significant rate, and any additional needs could be addressed in the short term by tweaking school catchment areas.
She said, “Given the analysis conducted by the ministry of this issue thus far, I have been advised there is not an actual case to be made to establish the building of the new school at this stage.
“The ministry commits to further exploring the need, but we certainly can’t commit to an additional school in Bodden Town by 2018.”
Mr. Suckoo agreed to amend his motion, which eventually drew unanimous support, to remove the timeline.
Ms. Rivers said she had asked the ministry to maintain a “watching brief” on population trends, particularly in Bodden Town, the Cayman Islands’ fastest growing district.
She said student numbers are on the increase in the district and are down elsewhere in the Cayman Islands, particularly in George Town, which she attributed to families moving out of the capital.
Despite that trend, she said, projections of student numbers suggest schools in the district are equipped to handle the increase.
“Even where some schools have increased in size, they currently remain within internationally recognized norms as they relate to accommodation and staffing. Overall, if the trend continues where overall numbers don’t rise significantly, but major demographic changes are maintained, it may very well prove necessary to review the catchment areas as an immediate response.”
She said a new school would add nearly $8 million a year to the education budget in staff, supplies and services. To justify that expenditure, she said, government would need to show that overall numbers are significantly and consistently on the increase at a level that could not be accommodated within the existing schools.
She said a more detailed analysis would take place to investigate capacity issues across the system in response to the legislators’ concerns.
Mr. Suckoo acknowledged the timeline in his initial motion was problematic given that government recently passed an 18-month budget without allocating funds for a new school. But he said a long-term plan for new school capacity is needed as the island, and in particular the Bodden Town district, continues to grow.
“I understand there is still capacity in the schools and we are not at critical levels yet,” he said.
“This motion is calling for some forward thinking, some planning. We need to have a plan. The development that surrounds us, the growth we are experiencing, the growth in new people coming to live here, all those things are interlinked and we need a big picture that we can work from,”
Mr. Suckoo’s motion also calls for resources and attention to be allocated to addressing the flaws highlighted in a series of baseline school inspection reports last year. Ms. Rivers said government is already doing this and has allocated resources for 50 new positions, while schools have individual improvement plans based on the inspection reports.
She added that this is not a knee-jerk reaction to the reports.
“The action taken was in response to these inspections, but remember, I called for these inspections and we were very proactive in taking a detailed look at what these issues are,” she said. “We recognized you can’t solve a problem until you recognize you have one.”