Dept ‘prioritise’ finding school merger site

FOI €1.7m St Bricin's refurb shelved

The Department of Education has enlisted a professional acquisition management firm to secure, as a matter of “priority”, a site to develop a new secondary school in West Cavan.

Utilising a long-standing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), officials will also begin leaning on Cavan County Council for help in identifying a location for the proposed new school.

The controversial school merger proposal, formally approved by the Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board and sanctioned by the Department back in September 2019, is now entering its third year overall. It’s proposed to build a new €15 million school in neighbouring Ballyconnell – amalgamating the student population of St Bricin’s in Belturbet and St Mogue’s in Bawnboy. However the Department’s efforts to find a location have hit a brick wall and, as a result, they have hired Duff & Phelps, a US company which operates from sites in both Dublin and Longford.

“The Department has engaged the service of Duff & Phelps and is commencing engagement with Cavan County Council,” a department spokesperson confirmed toThe Anglo-Celt. They added that due to “commercial sensitivities” it is not possible to provide further information.

In a separate reply, the same spokesperson noted that, so far, the site identification process has “proven challenging” for the department.

Regarding the MOU entered into with all local authorities, including Cavan, they clarified that councils can “provide assistance” where suitable sites for new schools are being sought.

The site being sought is in the “Ballyconnell area” confirmed the department, whose spokesperson stated: “The acquisition of a site for the permanent location of the school remains a priority for the Department. In the meantime St Bricin’s and St Mogue’s will continue to operate from the existing school sites until a new school building can be provided.”

Concern

At least one local councillor has expressed concern at the position this places the local authority in. The council, they say, is anxious to avoid being drawn into a project, which has already strongly divided opinion within the affected communities.

“It’s not the role of the council to find a site for anybody, nor should the council do anything more than is required of them,” Fianna Fáil’s John Paul Feeley said, responding to the revelation. “My consistent view is I believe there should be support and investment in the existing schools.”

Belturbet based Independent Cllr Brendan Fay, suggested the council’s involvement could create a potential “conflict of interest”.

“The council’s job is to unite communities, not be part of something that could push them apart,” said Cllr Fay, who now sits on the Cavan Monaghan Education and Training Board.

In November 2018, before Cllr Fay was nominated to the board, the CMETB voted to build the new school for west Cavan.

Cllr Sean Smith (FF) thinks the Department should refocus its efforts on building up the schools in Belturbet and Bawnboy respectively.

“Investment is what they need,” says Cllr Smith. “We are prepared to fight tooth and nail for that need to be recognised.”

The proposed closure of St Bricin’s comes despite sizeable funding being previously obtained by CMETB for an extension at the Belturbet school. The extension project was approved in 2013 with a grant of €994,000 but the plans went through a number of changes.

Dated April 2017, FOI records obtained by The Anglo-Celt, show the ETB was to receive €1.74m for the works before the ‘viability’ of the project was called into question by the department four months later.

They cited that the proposed costs had ‘escalated to €3,388,008.72 including VAT but excluding fees’, and soon after the agenda shifted to talks of a merger materialising.

Again from FOI records, it’s revealed that a planning meeting was arranged to take place in December 2017 between department officials and the ETB, but cancelled at the latter’s request.

‘You explained at the time that, rather than proceeding with this project as a standalone building, you wished to examine the overall ETB post-primary provision in Belturbet’, the email from one department official to CMETB CEO John Kearney stated. ‘The department is keen to progress this project and are requesting that we arrange this meeting as soon as possible.’

A spokesperson for CMETB told Celt the meeting in December 2017 was cancelled because “long-term accommodation needs” of St Bricin’s College were being examined.

Almost a year later, the CMETB board voted unanimously to proceed with the merger.

A feasibility study, dated September 2018, for the St Bricin’s two-storey extension with standalone PE facility, put the cost at circa €6 million.

It had been hoped the new merged school project would have been realised within five years, opening in 2023. However reaction from many in the affected communities piled pressure on the CMETB and department to reconsider.

In October 2019, a month after his department green-lighted the merger and new school plan, then Minister for Education Joe McHugh told the Dáil: “I asked for this not to happen.”

However he added: “This is not about closing schools but about the amalgamation and strengthening of a school. It is also trying to ensure that students in west Cavan stay in west Cavan rather than going to other schools.”

Ballyconnell representative Cllr Peter McVitty (FG) backs the merger plan. He is hopeful that the plan, which is scheduled to commence sometime between 2023-2028, will now happen, fearing delays could lead to a decrease in student numbers at both local schools.

“We need a new college,” says Cllr McVitty. “Politics aside, there are parents across west Cavan who are crying out for the new school for their children. We could end up with nothing. So we have to look to the future, our children.”

Belturbet Save Our Schools (SOS) believe by their actions in hiring an outside company to find a site, the Department is attempting to distance themselves from the decision making process.

“The Department of Education are now clearly passing this issue back now to the ETB and local county councillors, so they have an opportunity to do the right thing here and approach this with a fresh perspective and actually listen to the voice of people who have placed them in office. This is a serious issue and needs a robust, transparent process applied to it.”

A spokesperson for CMETB said: “The amalgamation project for St Bricin’s College and St Mogue’s College that the Department of Education sanctioned in September 2019 is due to commence in the second half of the National Development Plan,” they confirmed.

“This sanction remains in place with no upgrades, apart from essential works, being considered by the Department for both schools.”

A Cavan County Council spokesperson told the Celt the local authority “has not to date provided assistance” to CMETB or the Department of Education in relation to any proposed school merger in west Cavan.

They added: “As part of the review process of the County Development Plan, Cavan County Council has considered the future education needs of towns and villages throughout the county, and will engage with the appropriate bodies in line with its statutory obligations under the Development Plan process.”

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