Jurmala city government declares war on three local schools

  • 2010-08-18
  • By Ieva Cielava

RIGA - Three different schools in Jurmala, a seaside resort consisting of several villages next to Riga, still don’t know how they are going to start the new school year due to a growing battle over property interests. The Jurmala city council is insisting that one of the three, the Alternative School of Jurmala, has to move to a different location, to the building of the High School of Lielupe. The Alternative School, which is one of the rare schools in Latvia which practice alternative teaching methods and is considered to be one of the best schools in the country, thinks that this move would actually mean the closure of the school, says Guntis Ucelnieks, president of the school’s council.

Since 1991, the Alternative School has rented space from the Gardening High School in Bulduri. Since the Ministry of Education owns the Gardening High School, the city council pays rent of almost 20,000 lats (28,400 euros) to the ministry for the Alternative School. The money goes into the budget of the Gardening High School.
Aivars Grikis, the director of the Gardening High School, says the “rental agreement for the Alternative School of Jurmala ended already on June 30. The city council says that I have to put them out, but I can’t do that because they are still fighting for the possibility to stay here. The rent hasn’t been paid for two months now. Who is going to pay that?”

The city council explains that there are two reasons for moving the school. The first one is the financial consideration. If they are in the High School of Lielupe, they wouldn’t have to pay rent, and this could help the city council save up to 20,000 lats a year. The second reason is the suitability of the building for the education process. The Alternative School is located in the dormitory house of the Gardening High School of Lielupe, therefore the city council thinks that children should have a school - the High School in Lielupe - which is more adapted for the educational process, explains Inese Aunina, head of the public relations department in Jurmala’s city council.

Ucelnieks contradicts these arguments. He says that in the High School of Lielupe classrooms are not repaired and are, therefore, in bad condition. The second argument is the rush, because the school year starts already in three weeks, and the Education law demands that parents should be informed six months before any such reorganization. His third argument concerns the uncertainty and chaos over the whole process.

“The city council can’t give us any reasonable argument which could convince us that these changes are for the best,” explains one of the parents of a student at the Alternative School, Erik Plato, who is vice president for corporate banking in the Baltic countries and Poland, at Nordea Bank. He says that “We talked to the management of Gardening High School of Bulduri and  found a way to pay rent of only 10,000 lats a year. The city council is investing 35,000 lats in the High School of Lielupe to paint the walls and do other small things, and after two years the school will need general repairs; therefore, all the money which is invested now will be wasted.”

Plato explains that he can’t see a reason why the school should move to a place where the conditions are worse than they are now.
The director of High School of Lielupe refuses to comment on this situation at all. “Many people say that the High School of Lielupe isn’t good enough. The director of the High School doesn’t want to talk because there are too many rumors about how bad the school is, and she is tired from all of that,” assumes one local inhabitant, Janina Jaunzeme.

On Aug. 13, the parents of the Alternative School decided to pay the rent for the next school year, says Ucelnieks. Parents donate about 70,000 lats every year to improve the school; now they are also going to pay the rent. Plato explains that most of the parents can afford to donate the money and pay the rent, but he asserts that the Alternative School is still a public, not a private, school, and high school education is supposed to be free here in Latvia.

These three schools are confused, just two weeks before the school year starts. The national government doesn’t accept the changes which the city council demands, and the schools are caught in the middle of the fuss.

The local daily Jurmalas zinas found that the city council of Jurmala is demanding that the national government donate the building, where the kindergarten of the Alternative School is now located, to it. If the school moves to the High School of Lielupe, so will the kindergarten, and the city council would then obtain an exclusive house right next to the sea. Plato assumes that the value of this real estate could be 1, or even 1-1/2 million lats.

The Baltic Times wasn’t able to contact the director of the Alternative School because he has already been dismissed, and the school  doesn’t have a replacement yet. The previous director, Egils Blums, was dismissed for the illegal rental of the school’s property, at Piestatnes street 18 and Edinburgas prospect 33. The Baltic Times visited this property and noticed that a lot of people there seemed to be living an ordinary life - cooking, playing, washing the cars, etc. Asked if they are living on the premises, they all answered that they were “just visiting.” Your correspondent doubts that this is true, from the looks of things.

Opinions are divided. Grikis believes that this is one way the city council of Jurmala is trying to frighten Blums and force him to act in their interests. “This is not the first time when the city council dismissed him; all the previous times he has been taken back,” says Grikis.

“I really do believe that the director of the Alternative School takes, illegally, a certain amount of money and spends it for his personal needs, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the government of Jurmala takes part in this,” says one woman who has lived in Jurmala for many years.

“This is not the first time when the director of the Alternative School of Jurmala was dismissed. The government isn’t financially supporting education. In legal way, the director wouldn’t achieve anything. I really don’t think that Mr. Blums is putting the money in his own pocket, it is all for the school” counters Jaunzeme.
Ucelnieks and Plato can’t comment on this because, as they say, parents didn’t know that the school even owned these properties.

Unofficial sources say that the Alternative School was earning good money in an illegal way; the city council wanted to take their “share,” and demanded the kindergarten house for itself, but the Alternative School didn’t want to share. If the school would have shared the property, then they would be able to keep their illegal rental properties, the city council could keep the exclusive kindergarten building, but the government of Latvia, through the Ministry of Education, wouldn’t have anything but an empty house on the territory of the Gardening High School.

Only four years ago Jurmala experienced a wide ranging city council corruption scandal, when some of the political elite of Latvia - former Prime Minister Andris Skele, current vice mayor of Riga Ainars Slesers and others - participated in a bribery attempt to get their representative into the city council.  Nothing was proved in court then because the bugging of the officials’ phone calls was judged to be done illegally.

Time has moved on. The new city mayor, since May of this year, is Romualds Razuks, who was elected after the last mayor, Raimonds Munkevics, was dismissed for suspicion of bribery.