An elementary school in Western Estonia which is facing closure could be transformed into a private school, off the back of a €40,000 proposed donation from businessman Parvel Pruunsild, a local government leader says.
Ingvar Saare (Isamaa), mayor of Lääneranna Rural Municipality, proposed at a council meeting Thursday that the €40,000 offered by Pruunsild, owner of BigBank.
The school, in the village of Metsküla, Lääne County, was earmarked for closure in late March, but was also awarded the title of School of the Year.
The school is of Algkool (elementary school) status (grades 1-4) and as of the end of last academic year had just 21 pupils.
At Thursday's council session, Mayor Saare recalled that the Lääneranna Rural Municipality had in late March proposed to a local cultural association that the school remain open, but as a private school rather than run by the municipality.
The municipality was at that time prepared to give the school, pupils and parents, and the cultural association, a year's grace to proceed with the transition.
This offer was rebuffed, however, Saare said.
"On March 23, the Metsküla cultural association replied that as of that time they did not consider it necessary to discuss the creation of a private school," Saare said Thursday.
"For this reason, the year [of closure] was not changed in the council's decision [of March 24]," he went on.
That decision saw the municipal council opt to close Metsküla and other schools in its purview, also scaling down some other schools in terms of class numbers.
"In the current situation, the municipal government sees that the community, in cooperation with the municipality, could once again discuss the possibility of establishing a private school on the same basis as that suggested in March, while the municipality government is ready to give this time to the community as well."
Saare argued that the school could in effect be the beneficiary of a public-private partnership, if the Pruunsild donation were utilized alongside the municipality granting the land on which the school is located and providing other support.
"Perhaps we are ready to discuss the creation of a private school in Metsküla if such an initiative comes from the school community," he added.
Not all councilors concurred.
Opposition deputy Meelis Malk (EKRE) rejected the proposal out of hand, while his party-mate Eeva Helme said the €40,000 Pruunsild fund should be accepted, but used to prolong the school's life for one year, remaining as a municipal entity.
In the meantime, options for potential state support could be looked at.
Municipal council chair Armand Reinmaa had claimed accepting the donation could constitute a form of corruption, a claim which Helme rejected.
"The €40,000 would not go to the account of any official, nor to the school, but to the municipality," adding that the donation was simply a lifeline.
Mayor Saare added that he was continuing communication with Pruunsild, a major donor to all three national opposition parties in Estonia, though the Center Party returned their most recent donation.
Saare said among other things he wanted to ascertain whether the €40,000 would be a one-off lump sum or would point the way to further, continuous support.
Saare added that Pruunsild had said that it was in the former category, ie. a one-time donation, which the mayor rejected as simply punting the current state of affairs a year down the line.
"Therefore, we cannot currently support the draft of councilor Raul Oberschneider, because instead of clarity, it would create uncertainty," he went on, referring to a bill which originally called for the scrapping of the decision to close the school, later amended at the council chamber to postponing closure for a year.
In any case, that bill was voted down 10 to 6.
Mayor Saare noted that rural school state support, currently at the planning stage, involves making an application – all this meant it was too early to be able to count on that support as forthcoming.
This support is, however, being drafted precisely because local authorities in rural areas such as Lääneranna had not organized school support in time themselves, one government minister argues (see below).
In addition to the planned closure of the Metsküla school and another school in Lõpe, a school at Virtsu will be repurposed as a four-grade school, while Varbla and Koonga schools will become six-grade schools, from the fall of 2024.
Regional affairs minister: I remain optimistic the school can remain open
Minister for Regional Affairs Madis Kallas (SDE) told ERR that remains optimistic that the school will not have to close its doors in the fall.
Kallas said: "It's a sad situation where the state is about to prepare a measure that we will come to the aid of small rural schools, but the municipalities should have made their decisions earlier. However, I am optimistic that we will find a solution for the Lääneranna municipality as well."
At the same time, municipalities are autonomous and cannot be directed by the state and by central government in such matters, Kallas added.
"And I don't blame the Lääneranna municipal government either, because many municipalities don't have the means to maintain small schools. More children are needed there than 25 or 30. But in any case, the government will come up with a solution in the form of additional funding. I have spoken with the Lääneranna municipal leaders and they all concede that the issues relate to funding. They are not hell-bent on closing the schools just for the sake of it," Kallas said.
The ministry wants closure on the issue by the second week of August, after which it can come to the aid of the municipalities and their schools, the minister went on. "And then perhaps the [Lääneranna] municipality can reconsider its decision."
Since the funding offered from the private sector comes from a major donor to Isamaa and the other opposition parties, this expedited move on the part of the ministry to potentially provide support where needed – Mayor Saare had suggested the support would be drawn up in the context of state budget negotiations later in the year – needs to be seen in this light also.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Urmet Kook