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Tight economy touches education

Minister, school service providers square off over value for money
Published: 
Thursday, January 18, 2018

All sectors of the economy have been affected by the recession gripping T&T.

The education system has not been left untouched.

The Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses Programme (GATE) which caters for tertiary levels students has seen its own set of cutbacks.

At the primary and secondary school levels, for much of 2017, there was controversy surrounding the payments to maxi taxis that transport school children. The school feeding programme has also had problems with financing.

The Education Minister, Anthony Garcia, spoke to Business and Money to shed some light on his vision for the education system in times of less money and also what he is doing in some areas to deal with what he describes as “colossal” waste in the system.

Quality of education

Garcia said that despite the tough economic circumstances that the country finds itself in, the quality of education will not be compromised.

To deal with the inefficiencies in the transportation and school feeding programme, Garcia said the ministry will be engaging the stakeholders to come up with solutions.

In that regard, the ministry formed a committee comprising representatives from the T&T Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA), the Parent-Teachers Association, the Principals’ Association of both primary and secondary schools and also a representative from Public Transport Service Association (PTSC).

“Their mandate will be to work out ways and means of bringing efficiency to those programme and report back to us. What we have noticed as well is that in the transport programme, for example, less than 12,000 seats are being utilised on a daily basis yet we are being billed for 34,000. How has that come about? At present, we are conducting our investigations. We are doing an in-depth investigation.”

When asked if any money is owed to the maxi-taxi operators, he said that he is not sure.

“I know some money was made available to them. We made the money payable to PTSC. They (maxi-taxi operators) have to formalise this relationship with PTSC in the form of a contract. Already we have engaged the assistance of our legal department in drawing up a contract between PTSC and ourselves.”

Speaking about the caterers for the school feeding programme, he said that $50 million has been approved for outstanding monies to the caterers.

This fiscal year roughly $7.29 billion was approved for education and training.

When asked if the quality of education in the country has been affected by the country’s economic woes, he gave a resounding no as the answer.

“We are doing everything possible to ensure that the education we deliver is at a very high quality. We know we have to make adjustments and we are going to make the adjustments. However, any money that is expended, there will be value for that money.”

Operators await payment

Rodney Ramlogan, president of the Association of Maxi Taxi School Transport Concessionaires told Business and Money that the Ministry of Education still owes them millions.

“The Minister of Education is saying that the money has been paid. But we want our money.”

He said that there are roughly 350 maxi-taxi operators who provide the service for schools throughout the country.

Ramlogan said the problem of payments is not new and has been going on for many years.

“It has become more rampant as they do not have the money to pay. They keep saying they will make payments but they always have us struggling for money.”

Ramlogan said they are supposed to be paid every two weeks but the money is paid by the Ministry of Education to PTSC which then disburses the money to them.

“We work throughout the term, we do not work on holidays or get paid for the school vacation.”

He also spoke about how their lives are impacted by late payments.

“We have loans to pay, money to pay for diesel and other things. Right now everyone is in arrears because the money is not coming on time.”

He gave a breakdown of how much money maxi-taxi operators make daily for the service they provide to students across the country

For small maxi-taxi operators, daily they earn about $350 to $400. The large maxi taxi earns between $700 to $800 daily.

Ramlogan believes they should earn more.

“If a child goes to school from point A to point B and the child had to take two taxis to go to school, the figure would be between $12 to $14. We are doing this for something like $5.”

Seeking a resolution to the issues confronting the maxi-taxi school transport system, Ramlogan said a letter was sent to the Ministry of Education on January 11, 2018, stating that the association was willing to meet with officials of the PTSC and the Ministry of Education to discuss this and other issues.

The letter was a response to several statements made by the Minister of Education to the media over the last few months.

Excess and wastage

The results of an audit into the school feeding service and transport system revealed wastages.

Garcia had said in early January preliminary figures indicated that in excess of $234 million is spent on school nutrition annually, with 42,933 breakfasts and 65,269 lunches provided daily.

Following a survey of all schools across the country, it was discovered that an excess of 940 breakfasts and 1455 lunches were provided daily—amounting to wastage of $19,154.82 per day. In essence, school feeding service providers were oversupplying breakfast and lunch meals.

Regarding the provision of transportation services, the audit revealed that the PTSC would bill the Ministry for 34,000 seats but less than 50 percent of the seats were being utilised.

The Education Minister made it clear that in the country’s current economic position the Government could not afford to sustain that kind of wastage.

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