Local authorities firm on threat not to open school year

Progress made in higher education budget negotiations.

back to school 248.88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
back to school 248.88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
The new school year is in serious jeopardy just 19 days before it is slated to start. The Union of Local Authorities in Israel and the Forum of 15 independent cities categorically stated once again on Tuesday that they would neither implement the New Horizon reform plan nor open the new school year if the education budget cut was not repealed. The Education Ministry had said it was cutting NIS 85 million in 2008 from funds it allots to municipalities and local authorities for education. Forum 15 Dir.-Gen. Eitan Atia urged parents "to begin to prepare for a September without school." During a heated Knesset Education Committee hearing on the matter, several mayors slammed the Treasury for what they perceived as its poor handling of the government's funds. They also roundly criticized the cut, which Atia said amounted to 31 percent of their education budgets. The mayors will be meeting with Education Minister Yuli Tamir on Wednesday morning to try to work out a solution. At the committee meeting, ministry Dir.-Gen. Shlomit Amichai read from letters which she said indicated that the cut had been a direct order from the Prime Minister's Office. By contrast, the Finance Ministry representative noted that the budget shortfall had already been known about in January and had even been published in the budget report. He expressed mystification as to why the Education Ministry had waited until the last minute to deal with it. Herzliya Mayor Yael German called for a strategic dialogue on what exactly constituted education and what the government was obligated to supply under the free education for all law. She said no such dialogue had taken place in the last 30 years. German also demanded that the ministry find the funds within its own budget by cutting back on personnel. "Clean your own house first [before you come to us]," she demanded of Amichai. To which Amichai responded, "there will be 260 voluntary retirements from the staff, not from the districts, but from the ministry staff." Shmuel Rifman, head of the Ramat Negev local council, accused the Education Ministry of "cynically using the cuts ahead of the November elections." "You have taken the easy way out. You knew the municipalities would cause a fuss over the cut just ahead of elections in November," he said. Ashdod Mayor Zvi Zilker called on the ministry to take responsibility: "Solve the problem internally. I dreamt that I came to the meeting and the Education Ministry told us 'don't worry about it, we'll solve it ourselves,'" he said. Education Committee chair Michael Melchior concluded by refraining from taking any action under the Education Order law regarding the budget cut to allow the parties to continue discussing solutions. Meanwhile, Prof. Shmuel Grossman, head of the Council for Higher Education's Planning and Budgeting Committee, also told the Knesset Education Committee Tuesday that he was "very cautiously optimistic" about negotiations with the Treasury regarding the budget for higher education. A Treasury representative concurred, saying "there has been progress and the gaps have narrowed. We hope for results in the next week or two." The students complained that no one was negotiating with them about tuition hikes. However, Melchior pointed out that that was a good thing "since negotiations indicate interest in raising tuition."