Durban - Money meant to be spent on new school buildings will be diverted to pay the employees of the “grossly underfunded” KwaZulu-Natal Education Department.

On Thursday the provincial legislature’s portfolio committee on education heard that the cash-strapped department would resort to slashing its capital budget, which was intended for infrastructure. It is scouring its books for at least an extra R600 million to ease the worst of the pressure, much of which is a result of its huge wage bill.

KZN Education MEC Peggy Nkonyeni said “difficult” decisions had to be made to keep the department afloat.

The “desperate” situation was not of its own making, but it was now the department’s responsibility, she said.

The root of the financial problems was that its budget had consistently been too small to accommodate the increases in teachers’ salaries that were agreed on at national level, Nkonyeni told the committee. The lion’s share of the budget was spent on salaries.

Thursday was at least the third occasion that the department had impressed the severity of its financial woes on MPLs.

In October, the head of department, Nkosinathi Sishi, told the committee he intended using money earmarked for pupil and teacher support material (which included textbooks) to pay salaries but the provincial Treasury did not allow this.

The ratio in KZN was one textbook to five pupils, Sishi said at the time, and the province also had an R80bn infrastructure backlog.

The subsidy per pupil, which the department pays to public schools, was already below the recommended national guideline.

The department could only spend R932 each on pupils attending schools in the poorest three quintiles, when other provincial departments could afford R1 059 a pupil.

The department’s chief financial officer, Hlengiwe Mcuma, said that the inadequate subsidies meant schools struggled to pay their water and lights bills.

Mcuma said projections indicated that the department would overspend its budget for the 2014/15 financial year by R1.1 billion.

In the past, budget allocations, such as those for employee training and development, had been used to compensate for over-expenditure and the travel budget had been cut.

The travel budget pays for education district managers and subject advisers to visit schools in KZN.

Mcuma said that the department recognised it needed to address certain “inefficiencies” to spend its limited resources wisely. This included recovering debt from employees and ensuring that when an individual left, their salary was stopped.

However, when an employee, such as a teacher, resigned, the length of time it took for the letter to go from the school to the office where it was processed took an excessive amount of time.

This could be remedied by giving schools internet access and scanners - but this too cost money.

In the face of the cash crunch, it has been reported that the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union in KZN was demanding free housing, free schooling for their children and double-pay for extra work.

The Mercury