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Schools under pressure to pay utility bills

Published:Friday | July 18, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Jermaine Francis, Staff Reporter

Educators have been complaining that they are finding it increasingly difficult to keep their institutions afloat in light of the tough economic challenges, a matter which has become even more apparent with electricity in at least four schools being cut off for non-payment of bills.

Education Minister Ronald Thwaites confirmed yesterday that schools were owing the Jamaica Public Service Company more than $150 million, with one school owing about $17 million.

Heather Murray, principal of the Hampton School in St Elizabeth and president of the Jamaica Association of Principals of Secondary Schools, said the challenge in paying the utility bills on a monthly basis is a real problem for some schools.

"There are some schools that are struggling to pay their monthly light bill and water rate. I mean, sometimes you are paying in excess of $1 million a month. For example, that is the case at my school," Murray said.

She said the problem at institutions like Hampton is further compounded by the fact that it is a boarding school, so it consumes even more electricity and water.

"What some schools tend to do is pay a part and work out arrangements to pay as they can," she said, adding that many schools are being forced to use funds to offset other immediate expenses.

Murray explained that many times it is a matter of which one the school can pay first, and very often, extracurricular activities are scaled back and fundraising activities become a staple in some institutions.

"The Government does not give us money to pay utilities. You have to now pay it from the fees that you charge the students or from any other source that you can find. The tuck shop, for example, is a source that we have to use," Murray added.

Thwaites said that schools must take responsibility for the payment of their electricity bills and take additional steps to cut their electricity usage.

However, both Murray and Dr Mark Nicely, president of the Jamaica Teachers' Association, said many schools have been trying to develop more energy-efficient strategies, but this, too, can prove to be costly.

Nicely said the allocation that schools are being given is meagre when compared to the bills they are being required to pay.

"The schools are operating on pretty much a fixed income, so when you hear the education minister go to Parliament, for example, and say 'We are maintaining the budget', what that means is that they are giving me, as principal of William Knibb High School, the same amount of money, but the goods and services are going up," he explained.