Decentralization and Education
Decentralisation Fuels Power Struggle in Macedonian Schools Staffing disputes and unpaid bills are just some of the problems that have been plaguing schools since reforms left it unclear who is in charge.
Three months since the official start of a bid to decentralise education in Macedonia, school finances and the appointment of principals have become a battle ground between central and local government officials.
New legislation on primary education, designed to give local authorities much greater power over the running of their schools, has left it unclear who has the final say over key appointments.
As a result, since the start of the school year in Butel, Kliment Ohridski primary school has had not one but two principals.
Tatjana Cvetkovska was appointed as head by the education ministry in Skopje, while Marina Lazarovska is the more recent appointee of the mayor.
The situation is confusing and unpleasant, especially for the teachers. "You do not know who to listen to, the old or the new principal," said one.
Mayor Petre Latinovski fired Cvetkovska in September for failing to keep the school clean and appointed Lazarovska to take her place. But, challenging her dismissal, Cvetkovska still goes to work and refuses to hand over the school's official stamp, so that in practice the institution is managed by two principals.
Cvetkovska is one of more than 30 school heads who have been dismissed by their local mayors since the local authorities received new powers over education. And the resulting muddle over the appointment of heads is matched in the arena of school finances.
Under the new system, the ministry of education is obliged to send money for the upkeep of schools through the municipalities. But the mayors say no money has arrived. Faced with having to pay heating bills and other outstanding debts themselves, they are threatening to sabotage the deal unless they get help.
Analysts say the decentralisation terms have failed to clarify how the state and local authorities ought to divide up responsibilities. And the situation was been worsened, they say, by the fact that opposition mayors have been in power in most local authorities in Skopje since the last local elections. Often at loggerheads with the government, they have further reduced the chances of any practical coordination between the central and local authorities.
Analyst Ibrahim Mehmeti says the staffing and financing rows have damaged the image of the educational profession. "It gives the impression that the main interest of everyone is how to achieve more power, or to keep the power they already have," he said.
Writing in a magazine published by the non-governmental organisation Search For Common Ground, he added, "What must be done immediately is to find a way to leave the political context out of schools."
Decentralisation officially got underway in Macedonia on July 1, when the central government handed over a wider range of competences to the local authorities.
Devolution of power formed a key plank of the 2001 Ohrid agreement, which ended an armed insurrection in the Albanian-dominated west of the country. The goal of the devolution process has been to defuse Albanian claims that they were effectively excluded from the political process by granting wider powers over police, schools and other key areas to local authorities.
However, as devolution has been applied uniformly across the country, it has at the same time created fertile grounds for conflict in Macedonian districts, too, where opposition mayors suddenly find themselves wielding far more power than they did before.
In education, the new regime officially began on September 30. Under the new system, the municipalities are the owners and managers of schools. The ministry of education, on the other hand, is in charge of opening and closing schools and retains the right to control the broader educational process and monitor the quality of teachers.
The perceived need to decentralise education stemmed from an assessment that schools were over-centralised and open to political manipulation. The procedure for appointing teachers and other staff previously lay in the hands of the education ministry in Skopje, meaning that party political, ethnic and personal interests came to dominate the appointments process.
The new law on primary education gives local authorities the power to appoint and dismiss school principals. It vested power primarily in school boards, comprising parents, teachers, municipal representatives and one representative of the education ministry. The mayor has to appoint the principal suggested by the school board.
In the last round of local elections, however, opposition mayors took over in most municipalities in Skopje, while representatives of the Social Democratic-led ruling coalition still head the education ministry.
At the start of the school year the new mayors made prompt use of their new powers to replace the principals in 32 schools. But the dismissed teachers, supported by the ministry of education, claimed most of these dismissals were illegal as the school boards had not been consulted.
A government committee responsible for resolving cases such as the one in Butel concluded that, for the same reason, due legal procedure had not been respected when Cvetkovska was replaced as head teacher. Soon after this decision, however, a new school board for Kliment Ohridski was convened, which dismissed Cvetkovska again.
Cvetkovska says she is a victim of political intrigue. "The new school board is comprised of people loyal to the mayor and he simply dismissed me again," she told Balkan Insight.
Petre Latinovski, the mayor, freely admits having had a hand in the second dismissal but says politics has nothing go do with it. "I won't protect principals who don't work and give results," he said, adding, "I think it is correct I dismissed her again".
But Suzana Dzamtovska, of the ministry of education, says that even during the second dismissal by the newly established school board, the right procedure was not respected. "According to the law, a representative of the ministry should also be a member of the school board. In this case he was not called, so we again have a situation of a principal being appointed without respect for legal procedure".
Based on the ministry's report, Cvetkovska maintains that she will soon be back in her job, though Latinovski says this is out of the question.
The mayor complains that decentralisation has only loaded the municipalities with fresh responsibilities rather than real power. "We do not have the rights to manage," he said.
He has signed a memorandum of opposition mayors in the Skopje region demanding changes to the law on education in order to increase the powers of mayors over appointments. The letter says also that unless the state helps cover school debts and expenses, decentralisation will have to be postponed.
The ministry of educations is resisting what it sees as a blatant attempt to exert party political control over education. Dzamtovska says it is vital for school boards to retain authority over appointing principals. "Only by respecting the role of the school board, composed of both parents and teachers, can we move in the direction of de-politicisation," she said. "If mayors appoint directors, not only is the law violated but we move back towards politicisation."
Analyst Daut Dauti is also suspicious of the mayors' intentions. Their latest demand, he said, "expresses their intention to place people in managing positions with the same political orientation.”
"This is proved by the fact that in 31 out of 32 cases, opposition mayors were the ones who rushed to appoint new principals," he added.
The opposition says it is the government that is playing politics - by blocking the transfer of money earmarked for schools from the ministry to the local authorities.
Mayor Latinovski says the financial requests of the mayors are very modest. "We don't want any additional money,” he said, “just the money that was allocated last year and the year before."
The government has now moved to ease that particular problem, promising an extra 3.5 million euro towards the budget of the municipalities. At the same time, the ministry of education has been promised a 4.2 per cent increase in its budget next year, which many feel will help to reduce schools’ debts.
After meeting mayors in Strumica, the local government minister, Rizvan Sulejmani, insisted that the government would directly cover the cost of heating schools, which has proved to be the most expensive item.
But while this will be a weight off the mind of Butel mayor Latinovski, it seems that the fight over who should run Macedonia's schools is still far from over. Kliment Ohridski primary school will retain its two principals for some time to come.