Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Schools Building Projects Status

I note I have the only Topical Issue today and the Minister of State is doing her usual Thursday slot dealing with matters of education as well as the health matters she normally addresses. I have spoken on this matter over a number of months and I have had the opportunity to speak about the position of St. Paul's secondary school both here in the Chamber and at a meeting of the education committee. St. Paul's secondary school is an excellent school and the quality of education there is top class. There is a very committed principal and staff of teachers who are also top class. However, the physical structure of the building is in an appalling condition and the school was practically condemned at one stage when it suffered a fire. It was stated at the time that the school building was not fit for purpose but many years later it is still there.

The number of students has doubled over ten years and there are only two toilet cubicles for 207 boys, which is shocking. I have spoken to parents who have said children come home who are afraid to go to the toilet during the school day. Teachers have no staff room and they must mark copies sitting in their cars. There are old and damp prefabs still in use and there are no parking spaces for teachers either. Mr. Brian Bergin, the excellent principal at St. Paul's, has been before the education committee to outline how the school has arrived at this point. He has outlined his frustration, along with that of the board of management, students, parents and teachers, at having waited so long for a new building. There is a high level of anger and frustration in Monasterevin and its surrounding areas because of this.

The school feels incredibly let down. I have visited it a number of times. I was there recently with Deputy Micheál Martin to meet the parents' action group, the students and Brian Bergin. Deputy Martin was shocked by what he witnessed.

The situation is unfortunate and was exacerbated by a legal case that was initiated through the pre-tendering process in November 2018 and only finished this year. This created very significant concerns about the delays in commencing the new school building, and we need some reassurance in this regard. At the end of April we learned that the pre-qualification tendering had been advertised once again. The closing date for tendering requests is Monday, 27 May, and the process can take 18 months to complete fully. This could mean that the school will be completed by mid-2021. However, I was looking at the school's website earlier and I saw that a commitment had been made by a previous Minister for Education and Skills in 2013 that the school would be completed by 2015. If the current tendering is successful, though, we are looking at mid 2021. I will go into a separate issue, the lease and the acquisition of land, in my supplementary contribution.

I appreciate that the Minister of State is not a Minister in the Department of Education and Skills but I want to know when we will have a completion date for this school. I hope she can give us some information or some news in this regard.

I apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy McHugh, who unfortunately had to be somewhere else.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter as it provides me with the opportunity to outline to the Dáil the current position regarding the major building project for St. Paul's secondary school, Monasterevin. This project is included in the Department of Education and Skills' construction programme, which is being delivered under the national development plan. The project brief is for a new-build 850-pupil post-primary school on a greenfield site. The major building project for this school is at an advanced stage of architectural planning, namely, stage 2(b) - detailed design. This stage includes the applications for planning permission, a fire certificate and a disability certificate and the preparation of tender documents. All statutory approvals have been secured.

Has Deputy O'Loughlin received a copy of the reply?

There seems to be a problem getting her a copy. One was supposed to be given to her.

I am listening to the Minister of State anyway.

I am sorry. I will just continue.

The current status of the project is that the design team has recently been authorised to recommence the pre-qualification of contractors process to select shortlists of contractors for the main contract. The notice was published on the e-tenders platform on 26 April, with responses due on 27 May 2019. When the pre-qualification process for the main contract and reserved specialists contracts is complete, the project will be progressed to tender stage. A tender stage normally takes, as Deputy O'Loughlin said, between seven and eight months to complete.

Pending the delivery of the major building project, the Department earlier this year sanctioned additional temporary accommodation for this year and next year, which will be delivered by the design team. Additional off-site car parking has also recently been approved by the Department to facilitate the school until the new building has been completed. Department officials have met twice with school representatives in recent months and continue to be in regular contact with the school regarding the progression of this major building project. The Minister, Deputy McHugh, has recently agreed a date with the school for a visit, which is scheduled to take place early in the 2019-2020 academic year.

Regarding the site acquisition, legal representatives for both parties are working together with a view to concluding the conveyancing. There continues to be progress on foot of close and intense engagement from all parties. All parties continue the work to ensure the acquisition is completed at the earliest possible date. At this point it is not anticipated that the completion of conveyancing will impact on the timelines for delivery of the building project. The Department is fully committed to completing the project as soon as possible.

I will come back on some of the Deputy's other comments.

I thank the Minister of State. At the last public meeting I was at - it was attended by candidates for the local elections from all parties and none - a commitment was made that the Minister would visit the school. I know what the Minister of State is saying, that he will visit the school in the next academic year, but how long is a piece of string? I know he visited some schools in the same constituency this morning. I was not invited to join any of those visits. I will make the point, which I made at the public meeting, that when the Minister visits St. Paul's, everyone who is involved in supporting the school, including the teachers and the pupils, should be at that meeting. This has gone on for so long.

I have also sought a meeting with the Department in Tullamore, and I was quite shocked when the meeting was turned down. I was told I had to go to the Minister's office to get him to agree to a meeting. The Minister's office came back to me and said there was no need for a meeting. I took the matter up with the Minister's adviser who I rang no less than three times. He said he would arrange the meeting, but there has still been no meeting. I then took the matter up with the Minister. Any Deputy who has concerns about a school in his or her constituency should be able to get a meeting with the Department. Particularly in my role as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Education and Skills, I was extremely disappointed I was not afforded the courtesy of a meeting.

Moving on to the second aspect I mentioned, the lease regarding the site has still not been finalised. The site has been looked at for more than ten years. I put this question in to the Minister's office on an ongoing basis and I get the very same response every time, and it is this:

Regarding the site, legal representatives for both parties are working together with a view to concluding the conveyancing. There has been significant progress recently on foot of close and intensive engagement from all parties.

I have been getting this response for over a year. It is simply not good enough. In one oral conversation I had with someone senior in the Department prior to Christmas or possibly just afterwards, they indicated to me that because there had been the delay caused by the court case, people took their eye off the ball and they would only start back looking at it then. This is absolutely disgraceful. The site has been looked at for over ten years and many issues regarding roads and access have been successfully dealt with in conjunction with Kildare County Council, so a lot of money has been spent on the site. There is, however, a real fear on the part of the community and the school, when they see there is no sign of anything being signed, that this will not be delivered. I have more faith than that, but it is a ridiculous situation and we absolutely need more elaboration and a timeline regarding the site.

I will refer back to my statement. I am sorry if the Deputy still does not have a copy of it. Did she not get a copy?

It states at the end, "At this point it is not anticipated that the completion of conveyancing will impact on the timelines for delivery of the building project." That is positive. In addition, I looked to see if there was a date here for a visit to the school, and I think there is if the Deputy just-----

No. The Minister of State said earlier that it would take place during the academic year 2019-2020.

Yes, but I have a date here. It states here that the date agreed is early in the 2019-2020 academic year, and beside that the date 2 October 2019 is written.

The Minister of State has a date. That is great. I thank her.

I hope that is helpful to the Deputy. I am afraid I cannot give her any further information but I have taken notes and I will bring her concerns to the Minister's attention. I know she spoke to the Minister herself recently.

I agree with her that a school with so many students only having two toilets in this day and age is a very difficult situation, not only for the students and the parents, but also for the teachers. I will raise the matter again with the Minister.

Will she, please?

I believe that as part of the summer works programme there can be additional funding for toilets, so perhaps some avenue might be pursued with the Deputy in that regard. I am pursuing such an avenue with another school.

The Ceann Comhairle is listening attentively to this debate.

I thank the Deputy again. I will raise her concerns with the Minister.