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Durban - Schools across KwaZulu-Natal that use a large percentage of their state funding on utility costs are bracing for a power price hike that some fear could collapse their institutions or programmes.
And teacher unions in the province cautioned this week that, without any intervention by the government, lights would go off at some struggling schools, negatively impacting on education.
The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education confirmed that “many” schools were struggling as it is, saying it had received calls for help from some of them.
“Schools are going to be equally affected like any (other) entities,” said department spokesman, Muzi Mahlambi, of the rising electricity prices.
The National Energy Regulator of South Africa last week approved an 8 percent electricity tariff hike to Eskom which would affect what municipalities charge their customers, including schools.
Mahlambi, who would not disclose how many schools were struggling to pay their bills, said the situation was made worse by illegal connections that fed electricity to surrounding houses, as this added to their electricity bills.
He said schools were allocated funds based on norms and standards, and no additional funding would be forthcoming.
A snap survey by the Daily News this week revealed that some of the poorest schools in Durban are already spending 40-50 percent of their state funding on water and electricity.
Anthony Pierce, the KZN chief executive of the National Professional Teachers Organisation of South Africa, called this a “massive crisis”.
He said there had been instances in the past where the department and municipalities had to intervene and rescue struggling schools.
“If nothing is done, lights will go out at a number of schools and education will suffer,” Pierce warned.
He said without some form of exemption, schools would be forced to do a juggling act and cut down on other necessities.
Sadtu in KZN agreed, saying: “Our dream of having schools fully resourced will not work if the schools are still faced with high electricity bills.”
Sadtu’s provincial secretary, Mbuyiseni Mathonsi, called on the department to bail out the struggling schools, or look into exempting them from paying for electricity and water.
“This is very much a problem. Some of these schools are perpetually in debt now because of this,” Mathonsi said.
“If they cannot be exempted, perhaps we need to look at whether they cannot be partially charged so that they pay low rates.”
The National Teachers Union (Natu) called on the Department of Education to adjust its funding model to accommodate the looming price hikes.
Natu’s deputy president, Allen Thompson, said an upward adjustment should be in the region of 10 percent to accommodate Eskom’s 8 percent electricity tariff hike.
“Poor schools should also get exemptions, especially as most of them serve the very poor communities who receive free electricity,” he said.
A principal at a no-fee school in the Valley of a Thousands Hills said the school was already spending 40 percent of its allocation on water and electricity bills, and with the proposed increase expected to kick in soon, the situation could be dire.
“We receive a government allocation of about R50 000 a month, but at least R20 000 of that money goes towards paying our water and electricity bills. If electricity is increasing as proposed, we may end up paying up to R35 000 a month to the municipality,” said the principal, who did not want to be named.
He said his school would then no longer be able to pay for other necessities, such as maintenance.
“We are struggling to paint the school; currently the school cannot even afford photocopying papers,” the principal said.
“Even now as I am speaking to you, the photocopier is broken and now I have to negotiate with the supplier to pay for the fixing of the machine in small instalments. These are hard times for us, but what can we do?”.
An official at a Durban public technical school that uses a great amount of electricity for its workshops said they might also have to make sacrifices in the light of the increase in electricity prices.
“We might be forced to stop teaching courses like welding to our pupils, because they contribute to our high monthly electricity bill,” said a deputy principal at the school.
Vusi Nene, the deputy chairman of the governing body at KwaNyuswa Primary School, near Hillcrest, warned that the electricity price hike could lead to the “collapse” of his school.
“The government allocation is not enough - the bulk of it goes towards water and electricity at the school and we cannot afford to not pay those services because they are essential,” Nene said.
“So the school ends up sacrificing other basic services.”
Nene said his school could not even afford ink for a printer and photocopier.
“It is difficult for the school,” he said.