The Estonian Union of Private Schools (Eesti Eraüldhariduskoolide Ühenduse) wants to meet Education and Research Minister Tõnis Lukas to discuss the sudden rise in running costs and the cap on tuition fees. The cap, which is fixed in the Private Schools Act, prevents privately owned schools from raising tuition fees in the middle of the school year.
"A big problem for private schools is that their operating grants are calculated with a time lag of about one and a half years," wrote Ahto Orav, chairman of the Estonian Association of Private Schools, in a letter to Lukas.
"Operating subsidies for the following year are calculated on the basis of figures provided by the local authority for the previous year," explained Orav. "As current rates were fixed before last year's major increase in costs, they far from reflect the actual situation," Orav explained.
"The increase in costs over the past year has been the same for all schools, regardless of location or ownership, because you can't, metaphorically speaking, disconnect a school building from the end of an electricity cable or district heating pipe," he added.
According to Orav, a survey of private school owners showed that average electricity and other utility costs for schools have almost doubled in comparison to last year. The price of gas heating has seen a three-fold increase, with building management and maintenance costing on average one and a half times more now than twelve months ago.
Another problem, Orav points out, is that while the increase teachers' minimum wage is good news for all schools, the knock-on effect is an increase in the salaries of other school staff members, including support and administrative workers, costs which are not covered by state education subsidies.
"It is inconceivable that teachers' salaries will rise by 23.9 percent, while the salaries of other school staff members will not go up at all. At the same time, the salaries of these other staff members are precisely what is covered by tuition fees. However, (tuition fees) are capped by the Private Schools Act," Orav told Minister of Research and Education Tõnis Lukas.
Orav explained, that tuition fees are the only means of funding available to private schools. "Even if we wanted to include additional (financial) support from parents to help cover the increased cost of utilities and salaries, and parents were to agree to it, it would not be legally possible. The curriculum and timetable cannot be changed on-the-spot, nor can tuition fees be continually raised, as the ceiling has already been reached. However, salaries have to be paid and costs cannot be reduced," said Orav.
Orav also pointed out that there are key differences between schools belonging to local authorities and those owned by the state. "Municipalities can allocate extra money from their budgets to help schools cover the two-fold increase in utility prices and rising salary costs over the last year, either by redirecting funds from another part of the budget, or from additional supplementary budgets. However, under the current regulations, private schools essentially have no such possibility," said Orav.
Orav believes that, if the current situation continues, with no additional measures to alleviate the issue forthcoming, some private schools may be forced to consider closing their doors.
The Estonian Private School Association has also requested a meeting with the education minister to discuss whether compensation measures introduced to help small and medium sized enterprises cope with rising energy costs may also be applicable to private schools and schools of private interest.
Editor: Michael Cole