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Local governments give up schools – churches take over

June 13th, 2011

Due to the financial squeeze and the falling birth-rate, local councils are being forced to get rid of the schools under their jurisdiction. Many are being taken over by various Churches. The weekly Heti Válasz, which  usually supports the Government, paints a rather dramatic picture of the school situation in Hungary.

A wave of school closures is sweeping through the country, as local councils, – most of them led by conservatives – are­ compelled to give up schools under their jurisdiction. The weekly warns that this trend could even accelerate in  future. State subsidies are shrinking, towns and villages have accumulated huge debts, and the number of children attending school is decreasing. As a result, more schools are slated for closure, in at least 20 to 30 localities, continuing the practice of past years.

Although parents and teachers suspect that political motives, secret real estate deals, or revenge may lie behind school-closures, in many cases the real reason is simple mathematics. In the 14th district of Budapest, for example, the József Attila elementary school was closed as a result of low attendance. The local council provided an annual sum of 728 000 forints per child, while the central government subsidy amounted to a mere 244 000 forints per child. By merging  two schools, the local council was able to sell off the school building, and lay off 14 employees. As a result, it could save 62 million forints next year.

Local councils have one escape-route to avoid school-closures: offering them to Churches, which are often quite willing to take them over. Churches receive a higher government subsidy per child than secular institutions, because they were stripped of their wealth under the Communist regime, and have no resources comparable to the incomes of local administrations. Earlier, if local governments handed over schools to Churches, they were forced to pay the difference in subsidies for several years. (This was how the Socialist government tried to slow down such handovers). Now this obligation has been cancelled, so handovers have become much more attractive.

In many cases, however, neither teachers nor parents were happy with the changes. To ease the tensions, Catholic Bishop László Kiss-Rigó has announced that no mandatory religious education will not be introduced in already functioning classes, and only new six-year-olds will have to study religion in schools newly acquired by the Catholic Church. He calculates that from 5 to 10 per cent of the staff in each school will have to leave, – those found to have “extreme materialist views”. At present in the Szeged-Csanád area alone, the Catholic Church is negotiating the takeover of schools with 38 local councils – writes Heti Válasz.

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