Maverick Citizen: OP-ED

Limpopo schools face an impossible choice – sanitiser vs basic necessities

By Samantha Brener 26 May 2020

Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga addresses members of the media on the re-opening of schools as South Africa continues the fight against the spread of Covid-19. 30 April 2020. (Photo: GCIS/Jairus Mmutle)

A lack of additional Covid-19 funding means that public school principals and governing bodies are being forced to perform a financial juggling act with potentially deadly consequences.

In the middle of May, public schools in Limpopo received two circulars from the provincial Department of Education. The circulars instructed schools to restructure their budgets to cater for the additional needs created by Covid-19. 

In so doing, both the province and the national Department of Basic Education (DBE) have forced principals and school governing bodies to make impossible decisions in the context of this pandemic – either buy sufficient sanitising materials to keep classrooms properly clean, or use allocated funds to purchase basic necessities such as stationery, toilet paper and electricity. In many cases, there is simply not enough money for schools to do both.

What is the school operational allocation?

Public schools in South Africa are divided into five groups, or quintiles, in order to facilitate a pro-poor distribution of resources in non-personnel expenditure. Roughly speaking, a school’s quintile indicates the wealth levels of the community in which a school is placed. Schools in quintiles 1, 2 and 3 are situated in communities so poor that they are free of fees. 

Because they do not receive fees from parents or caregivers, the only money these no-fee schools receive to cover their costs comes from the state. Every year, running costs are covered by an “operational allocation” provided to public schools by provincial education departments (PEDs). This money may not be spent on teachers’ salaries or school buildings. It is, instead, a critical source of funding to cover the running expenses of a school – to be used for items such as textbooks, stationery, charts, library books, classroom cleaning materials, and electricity.

The circulars sent by the Limpopo department of education carry a fairly simple instruction – schools are required to cut their allocation budgets by 45% in order to use this funding for Covid-19 related cleaning expenses. This will include the costs of contracted cleaning services, gloves, aprons and cleaning materials. Unless reviewed, the instruction remains in place until 31 December 2020. 

How is this playing out for schools in Limpopo?

On 19 May, Minister for Basic Education Angie Motshekga held a press briefing to inform the public of the DBE’s plans for the phased reopening of schools. In this briefing, the minister responded to a question regarding the review of school budgets by saying that her instructions to provinces had been to cut expenditure on items that were non-essential, or no longer taking place, due to the pandemic. Her examples included using funds which would normally go towards events such music competitions or athletics. 

In many schools in South Africa’s poorest provinces, however, the trade-offs of shifting around funding allocations are not so straightforward. The reality is that many schools in our poorest provinces are already cash-strapped for basic necessities, and simply cannot afford luxuries such as music competitions. Their operational allocations must be used to cover much more fundamental necessities of running a school – stationery, office equipment, electricity, standard cleaning materials, and, in at least one recent case, even water for learners. 

Even before Covid-19 hit, the public interest law centre, SECTION27, was frequently told by schools in Limpopo that the operational allocations were simply not enough to cover even the basic requirements for running a school. As an example of this, schools have reported toilet paper running out before the end of the month, and having insufficient funds to replenish it. 

SECTION27 has begun a process of contacting some of our client schools in Limpopo to discuss their state of readiness for learners and teachers to return to school from 1 June. 

Principals and SGBs have expressed much anxiety about the required 45% budget revisions.

One senior representative noted that, in stressing about his responsibility to meet the school’s very basic needs, it had crossed his mind that he may need to borrow money from loan sharks, for fear of having insufficient funds in light of the required revisions. Another said she had been planning to use some of this funding for additional desks to ensure social distancing. Another said he had budgeted to use part of his school’s operational allocation to pay for water by the litre. The school does not have water on the premises. 

The 2019 National Education Infrastructure Management Survey (NEIMS) shows that 249 schools in Limpopo lack running water and rely on deliveries from tankers. At least one school is using its operational allocation to pay for water delivery. There may well be many more. For these schools, the operational allocation provides critically needed funding to ensure water availability. 

These officials are facing impossible choices in the context of Covid-19 – trading one set of essential items for another. 

Regulations on school funding 

If schools’ operational allocations are insufficient in this context, what other sources of funding are available? 

The Norms and Standards for School Funding (NSSF) set out clear guidance for the DBE and PEDs, where school allocations are insufficient to cover operational requirements during disastrous events. They provide that:

In view of the fact that schools are not equally subject to the legacy of apartheid inequities, … and unexpected calamities, the DBE and the PEDs must pursue resourcing mechanisms other than the school allocation in order to deal with the following shortages of the items [usually purchased using the allocation funds]: Shortages resulting from calamities such as fire or floods.

If ever there was a calamity envisioned by the NSSF, Covid-19 is it. 

The DBE and PEDs, therefore, have a responsibility to search for resourcing mechanisms beyond the school operational allocation, in order to deal with the needs and shortages created by the pandemic. 

What’s more, it appears that the education sector has not been earmarked by the Treasury for additional Covid-19 related funding. It has not been mentioned as a sector in need of support in the National Treasury Economic Relief Plan. Nor is it eligible for support from the Solidarity Fund.

It seems therefore that PEDs must find all of the additional funds they require from their existing allocations (unless the rumoured additional funding from IMF, World Bank, New Development Bank or African Development Bank for the national Covid-19 response provides some relief). This will be no small task for the DBE and PEDs. 

However, it is essential the circumstances of the most vulnerable schools in our most vulnerable provinces be considered when these difficult funding decisions are made. As it stands currently, these schools will have to engage in the sadly all too commonly required magic trick of doing more with less. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is an extraordinary crisis, and it seems absurd that schools should be forced to cut already underfunded budget allocations in order to address the challenges we face at present. Stakeholders at DBE, PEDs and the national and provincial treasuries must assist in finding creative alternative resourcing mechanisms. 

The safety of learners and educators at schools where budget allocations are insufficient to meet the new demands may be jeopardized if they do not. DM/MC

Samantha Brener is an Education attorney at SECTION27.

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