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Jaan Toots: Narva needs an extension for Estonian education switch

Jaan Toots was elected mayor of Narva on October 5, 2023.
Jaan Toots was elected mayor of Narva on October 5, 2023. Source: Sergei Stepanov/ERR

New Narva Mayor Jaan Toots tells ERR in an interview that while the city's teachers are busy learning Estonian, Narva will likely need an extension for switching to teaching fully in Estonian.

You're in Tallinn today for a day filled with meetings (the interview took place on December 20 – ed.). Is it a case where representatives of the government would have called in sick had they known Toots would be around to ask for money?

You're not far off. There is little to be done now that the state budget has been passed. We are looking at other options today, funds and measures. We need to aim for European subsidies as the Estonian state budget taps are closed.

Are changes in the Just Transition Fund cause for satisfaction and security?

Yes. I met with representatives of apartment associations yesterday, or was it the day before, and the venue was packed. It means there is interest. There are two different measures, the 20-80 and 75-25. That is what speaks to Narva residents. Whereas it is not a matter of attitudes but simply that the salaries in Narva are so modest. It was also a factor when the price of heating was hiked 84 percent from September 1.

Do you believe people will be properly insulating the khrushchevkas in Narva now? That the picture there will resemble Tartu or Tallinn in five years' time?

A little over 100 apartment buildings have been fixed up in Tartu, a little over 40 in Pärnu. It would be enough to give the city a new look if we could get done 40-50 buildings in the city center. But the most important thing is to make sure they retain heat.

But the City of Narva will have to make investments too. You asked the government for money to renovate the Alexander's Cathedral, for a kindergarten with ten sets of classes, 100 nursing home places and a municipal rental apartments building. You were turned down on all counts.

Not quite. We were shown how we could share in a measure in the field of social welfare. We will be launching a draft project before the year's end to be prepared for when the measure opens in April. We are talking about €26 million in which Narva's share comes to €2.6 million.

As concerns the cathedral, we were paid a visit by the Ministry of the Interior's secretary and undersecretary. The situation is not hopeless. The state owns half the church and they realize that leaving things unfinished is the worst outcome. But it's true we are no longer talking about a grand renovation but only the concert hall. The sum needed is around €3 million, and I believe we will be able to make it happen.

There was no room in the budget for the new kindergarten, but I will continue looking at available funding schemes. It is not hopeless.

Looking at Narva's budget for 2024, the city's loan burden is set to grow from 39 percent to 50 percent. Why so little?

Our budget is €110 million for the third consecutive year. While it usually goes up 7-10 percent annually for most local governments. We cannot borrow ourselves bust. But we'll need to spend €2 million on a new road linking the industrial park to the main highway. The other €3 million we will be borrowing will go toward servicing existing loans.

It is easy for me to say from an onlooker's perspective that you can save €600,000 by canceling the City Archives extension, while dropping plans for a new slipway would save another €300,000. There are non-essential things still in the budget, are there not?

No. The archives building is on the verge of collapse. We cannot allow archives to spoil. We will renovate the building and add a floor.

While everything can be revised in theory, I had a conversation with the deputy chairwoman of the board only this morning in terms of ours being an extremely conservative budget. Once the roof of the archives building starts to leak, we will lose the archive.

Minister of Regional Affairs Madis Kallas has proposed taking more from wealthier local governments and giving it to poorer ones. Narva would stand to gain over €4 million. I take it you are on the side of Robin Hood?

It is a double-edged sword. Being also a member of the Tartu City Council, I see that Tartu would be among the contributing local governments. But those things are up to the central government to decide. I cannot be overjoyed on the one hand, while more funds are always good on the other. It's true that we have municipalities which really are strapped for cash. But I also believe our local governments should be much bigger.

Before you took office, the Narva City Council said that the municipality should not construct an apartment building. Now, Narva wants to build one.

It would be a municipal building.

Yes, you've said it would be for the employees and executives of municipal agencies. Does the market work differently for them? Don't they create enough demand for the free market to supply the real estate?

No, no... A rental apartment is meant for the rental business, and the city does not do business. But the public sector can build municipal houses. We have one in Tallinn and one in Valga. We could have nurses and teachers living there. They would be given an apartment for as long as they work for the municipality and would have to give it up upon leaving the city's employ.

I think the rental building matter will be taken care of by [real estate developer] Rand ja Tuulberg. They will have contracts with two or three major businesses that need top specialists who can afford the rent. The aim will be for those companies to buy the apartments and rent them out. The city was never supposed to be a mediator there. That is the kind of building [former Narva Mayor] Katri Raik wanted, which obligation will be assumed by Rand ja Tuulberg.

I gathered from earlier interviews with you that 157 schoolteachers and about the same number of kindergarten teachers in Narva do not speak sufficient Estonian. This is 70-80 percent of all kindergarten teachers.

That is outdated information.

There should be Estonian-language education in grades one through four and in kindergartens in just a little more than six months. Does Narva need an grace period?

We still have eight months. The deadline is August 1 for kindergartens and September 1 for schools. We will probably need an extension, while it will likely be painful. Those who have not passed the C1 language proficiency test would be classified as assistant teachers and would not qualify for the 50 percent of pay bonus the government has pledged. It will serve as motivation.

But the data is three months old. We have seven groups [of teachers] learning Estonian today, and I believe the situation will change quite a bit in eight months. I've said in several interviews that I learned Russian in nine months because I had to. We have the teachers today, and around 25 percent of them have passed the exam.

The C1 proficiency test?

B2 and C1, depending on the category of teacher. I think there will be some difficulty with schools but that it will be hardest with kindergartens.

Please describe the exception you would need and what the law provides. I believe you have discussed this with the education minister.

We're talking about a year's extension. They're still learning. I don't know whether the reason is that it was not taken seriously enough, that they thought, oh, well, they've been talking about the switch [to teaching in Estonian] for 30 years. But the reality today is that everyone is learning.

There is a nuance involved. I'm not afraid to say it. For example, there are a lot of Turkish-speaking high schools in Germany that teach in-depth German. They can still obtain basic education in Turkish. But once they leave school, they have opportunities to speak German.

There is no such opportunity in Narva. For the next decade, people will still speak Russian at home, with their friends and when going to the shops. We will never be able to retrain sales assistants and waiters because they have no reason to [learn Estonian]. They are unskilled workers who never plan to leave Narva.

Switching to teaching in Estonian will not be a problem in Tartu. There may be difficulties in Lasnamäe and North Tallinn in the capital, while it is still possible. But there is just no practice in Narva. Of course, people need to speak the national language, but jeopardizing education through having them study in-depth topics in that language. Those are two different things.

However, that is the course Estonia has plotted. I don't suppose there will be any...

Naturally. What I mean is that Narva is very much a special case, as is Sillamäe.

I understand the problem, but how do you plan to phrase it for a proposal?

The teachers are learning today. We will sort out that part of it. But for the whole of Narva to start speaking Estonian – not any time soon.

Has the ministry promised you that when its inspectors start doing the rounds next fall, Narva will be seen as an exception?

We have to either find a way or close the school or kindergarten. It is that simple – black and white. I'll tell you the solution – it's when the next generation grows up. They will start [learning Estonian] in kindergarten and school, and the problem will be solved.

You have met with Jaanus Purga, the government's Ida-Viru County special representative. Have you also understood what his role will be?

He will try to help introduce measures and documentation. There will be joint deliberations. I do not understand all of it but we have met.

/.../

Allow me to be unfair in pointing out that Purga recently told Maaleht that he does not consider constructing a 2+2 lane highway all the way to Narva to be sensible because Estonia should not favor motorization. Do you agree?

It is quite an ill-considered statement, very unseemly. There is considerably more traffic between Narva and Jõhvi than there is on the Tallinn-Tarty highway. It can be backed up just like Vabaduse puiestee in Tallinn. Constructing those additional 47 kilometers of 2+2 highway is a matter of traffic safety. This talk of being against motorization is harebrained. How should the people travel?

We have a big problem with train traffic. I have taken the train between Tallinn and Narva three times. I usually need to travel between Tartu and Narva, but the train connection there is practically nonexistent. There is a single daily train and you have to switch at Tapa. The rest depart with three or four-hour intervals. It is unthinkable.

The train makes 23 stops between Tallinn and Narva, meaning it takes two hours and 40 minutes to go from one city to the other. The distance from Narva to Tartu is the same, while it takes the train one hour and 56 minutes there. We can talk about reining in motorization once rail traffic is fixed and taking the train becomes faster.

What should Narva bet on in the green transition to emerge on the side of the winners?

Let us take a look at the green transition in Europe at the moment. It has been put on standby for the moment. Germany is reopening its mines, while we will have no other option ourselves. There is no gas coming from Russia. They are busy building a pipeline and railroad to China and once those are ready, they'll never return to this market.

The green transition does not have to be different in Narva to the rest of Estonia. It is true that public transport is still oil-powered in Narva. Tartu is trying to switch to gas buses, while there were some technical problems at first and then there was not enough gas to go around.

But one part of the green transition is also to safeguard our parks and greenery to improve our living environment. This part is seeing constant development in Narva.

Where will the new gas-powered plant be erected in Narva?

Outside city limits, on the territory of Enefit. But we definitely want to switch to district heating. It will be the main topic in the council in January.

I met with Andres Vainola, director general of Enefit Power, just yesterday. He painted me a picture using graphs of what would happen if we didn't switch to district heating. Heating prices would grow even more. The larger the quantity, the lower the price. The city of Narva lies on a vast territory. And the price will depend on whether we will join the wider network or stick with our smaller boiler plants. The proposal was made by the previous city government under Raik, and I have now dusted it off.

You told Maaleht in an interview three weeks after assuming office that Narva has 52 financial and accounting specialists working for the city government and council. Have you an idea of what they all do by today?

The city's financial department is in the middle of reorganization. I hired two people for this purpose. We postponed structural changes to January. Based on what we know today, the department wants to lay off 12-15 people. I'm not satisfied with this number, something is wrong. And I also believe such things should not be done lightly.

But 12-15 people...

Would not be a problem.

Next, I tried to gauge how many different agencies, foundations and companies Narva has. It is quite a complicated structure.

Yes, but that is also the case in other larger cities. There are social buildings, schools, kindergartens, cultural centers and hobby schools. Our so-called food chain has 2,200 people.

How many could you cut?

Hard to say. From the central administration, I believe it is around 20. Operations must continue without disruption. But it's more than that moving down the chain of command. We have a caretaker in every kindergarten, electricians and handymen. We could have teams to cover all kindergartens and schools. I agree that this has been overlooked for years, and it is something we will undertake.

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Editor: Barbara Oja, Marcus Turovski

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