If you perform a simple search on the net, you can easily find information on the new or reconstructed schools with European Union funds in Albania. Finding information on schools being built with public funds on the other hand (including public information on funding and reconstruction procedures) is a challenge in itself. A challenge, which also extends to the reasoning that schools built with the funds of the Municipality of Tirana cost almost twice as much as those built with EU funds.
The reconstruction of educational institutions of the capital after the earthquake of November 26, 2019, one of the biggest natural disasters in the territory of the Republic of Albania in recent decades, was among the most discussed topics in the recent months. This earthquake, beyond the major damage to public infrastructure and private property, had a severe impact on schools in the cities affected by it. In numerous posts on the official websites of the Municipality of Tirana and those of the Mayor, Erion Veliaj, it was promised that many schools in the capital, affected by this earthquake, would start the reconstruction from the foundations and a number of other schools would be restored, thanks to their partial reconstruction.
At the same time, Prime Minister Rama, in many cases during 2019 and 2020, has promised that in the new school seasons, such as those of 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, the children of dilapidated schools would start lessons in new schools, with much better conditions than those they had before the earthquake.
In his posts on social media, the Prime Minister promises that “143 new schools with European standards, (will be) all ready by 2021, instead of similar buildings hit by the disaster of the end of 2019, are a meaningful response to name of Albania that we want. ”, emphasizing that within 2020, all schools will be ready to receive their pupils. These promises have come at a time when the school infrastructure, even the pre-earthquake one was lagging behind, as well as in a pre-election period with many promises, and with very high expectations.
An investigation by the Albanian Center for Quality Journalism shows that despite the fact that we are approaching the second year after the infamous earthquake, about 38 educational institutions are expected not to be ready to receive students in their auditoriums in the new school year of 2021- 2022. From the information received from the Municipality of Tirana, the latter admits that in Tirana there are still 38 educational facilities under reconstruction, 30 of which are under construction and 8 are being reconstructed.
Among these 38 schools is the well-known high school “Sami Frashëri”. This school started the reconstruction process in December 2019, and it was expected that this school would complete its construction in January 2020, but the school that was demolished and istarted building from the ground up, in June of this year still continues to be in the first steps of the reconstruction process.
The “Sami Frashëri” high school was founded in the school year 1962-1963 and follows a long history of success at the national level. After the initial promises for reconstruction and reopening of the school within a short time failed to materialize, on 29 October 2020, the opening of the foundations for the construction of the new school began, which is expected to be 2 times larger than the previous building.
The Mayor said at the end of June 2020, that within the summer the work for the reconstruction of the “Sami Frashëri” high school would start. He stated that this will be the largest and most beautiful school in Tirana pursuant to European standards. In addition to these statements about the expectations for this high school, the Mayor also stated in November 2020 that this school was being built with European Union funds. Following the Mayor’s statements, the former Members of Parliament accused him of making a false statement as there is no project and no official announcement about the use of EU funds for educational projects. On the other hand, the information obtained from the Municipality of Tirana shows that 27 of the schools planned to be reconstructed and rebuilt in the capital, will be built with state budget funds, and the rest will be funded by various donors.
Reconstruction with European Union funds versus those of the Municipality of Tirana
From the request for information addressed to the Ministry of Reconstruction, the latter confirms that the list of schools which will be reconstructed with the funds made available by the European Union, does not include the high school “Sami Frashëri”. From the list made available by this ministry, the schools which are planned to be built with EU and other donor funds include:
- 9-year school “Xhezmi Delli”;
- 9-year school “Musine Kokalari”;
- 9-year school “26 November”;
- 9-year school “Asim Vokshi”,
- 9-year school “Emin Duraku”;
- 9-year school “Myslym Keta” and
- Kindergarten “No. 41 ”
The Ministry clarifies that the whole phase of design, implementation and supervision of these investments will be overseen by the donors themselves with their implementing units.
The European Union has two reconstruction projects, “EU4Schools “and “EU4Culture”. The search on the official website of EU4Schools shows that 6 schools are being reconstructed with EU funds in Tirana and also the details of the dates of the consultation, the start of the repair and the closing of the reconstruction process are given. The EU, in the framework of the reconstruction, donated 400 million euros, of which 115 million in direct grants divided in these two projects, with the project “EU4Schools” providing 75 million euros for the reconstruction effort.
At the beginning of the process of restoration and reconstruction of these schools, according to the Bulletin of the Public Procurement Agency, the limit fund made available by the European Union amounted to 15 million euros, dedicated to the repair and reconstruction of 22 schools, with an average of 681.000.00 euros per school. At the same time, the Albanian Development Fund would contribute 34 million euros to 45 other schools, with about 760,000.00 euros per school.
On the website of Open Procurement Albania, there are tenders announced by the Albanian Development Fund. In the district of Tirana, the funds of this organization are focused on the Municipality of Vora, Kamza, Kavaja, Shijak and Rogozhina, and there is no data on educational facilities in the Municipality of Tirana.
At the same time, an official source from the Directorate of Urban Planning provides information on schools being rebuilt by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). It shows that 6 of the educational institutions in Tirana are being funded by UNDP. The “EU4Schools” program is implemented by UNDP, which has donated 765,000.00 euros from its funds. Even in this list is not included the “Sami Frashëri” high school, but this school is included in the list of contracts concluded by the Municipality of Tirana on 23.10.2020, with a value of 568,492,069 ALL excluding the VAT, around 6 million Euros. This is a value for the reconstruction of a single school, as much as the fund for the reconstruction and reconstruction of about 10 educational institutions funded by the European Union.
Another fact that is noticed from the review of the tender opened by the Municipality of Tirana, and the contracts concluded with different economic operators, is the decision for construction of 10 new residential buildings for students, with a construction cost of about 3 million euros per building, where with the exception of the high school “Sami Frashëri”, which cost taxpayers 6 million euros, all other schools and kindergartens provided in this call do not exceed the value of 2 million euros per construction.
Moreover, in this limited tendering procedure, what really attracts attention is the fact that in an open procedure for 14 different objects; where the most favorable economic offer has been the basic condition for the selection of winners, with a full 60% of the evaluation points; 13 companies or mergers of economic operators have submitted for each building their full bids, bringing the total number of bids for this tender to 182; whereas in many of the winning bids, the winning values were almost the same for the same constructions by different operators; none of the economic operators that have participated in this tender has lost the opportunity to win at least one contract from the Municipality of Tirana. Every company that has participated in this tender has won at least one tender contract.
International projects such as Eu4Schools, implemented by the EU and UNDP, are several times more transparent than Albanian state institutions about the reconstruction process. Meanwhile, for the process of reconstruction, and simply of schools in the capital, it is almost impossible to find any information on the website of the Municipality of Tirana, except for news and promotional videos of the institution itself. In any case, there is a need to forward formal requests for information which are often delayed in their response and often missing in the response as a whole. Unlike the transparency of Albanian state institutions, in the above-mentioned pages of EU projects, any information can be easily found with a simple search on their official websites.
Temporary education tax and its inefficient use
An important element that raises questions about the transparency of school reconstruction in the Municipality of Tirana, is the temporary education tax. According to the annual data in the collection of this tax and some simple accounts on the revenues of the Municipality of Tirana, questions arise about the transparency of the use of funds for reconstruction.
Through a request for information to the General Directorate of Local Taxes and Tariffs, it results that the education tax for the family category for 2016 has been collected in the amount of 1,257,016,607 ALL, while that for business in the amount of 2,000,122,053 ALL.
The fund collected by the Municipality of Tirana from the temporary tax on educational infrastructure aims to be used for investments in educational infrastructure and in the functioning of the institutions that manage the programs of basic education, preschool and general secondary education.
Through another request for information from the Municipality of Tirana, we were provided with a table which reflects the investments made by the Municipality of Tirana in educational infrastructure and the revenues collected from the temporary tax of educational infrastructure for the years 2016-2020. It is noted that expenditures on basic education have increased significantly in 2019, while revenues collected from the Tax have decreased. The year with the proportion of expenditures and collection of Tax revenues is 2017.
However, despite the information received from the Municipality of Tirana, in no case was information provided how much funds from this specific tax are going to projects to improve the educational infrastructure in the city, given that many of the schools that are being built in Tirana have been subjected to the Public Private Partnership procedure, in which the Municipality of Tirana has issued guarantees for loans received from private operators for the construction of these facilities.
Moreover, although the revenues collected by the Municipality of Tirana through a meeting defined by it as “temporary”, but now, after more than 5 years in force, is turning into a regular tax, It gives the latter the opportunity to invest strongly in a vital sector for the future of the city, it remains unclear why the program of reconstruction of school institutions in Tirana costs twice when it is funded, supervised, implemented and completed by the Municipality of Tirana, vis a vis the program of the reconstruction of schools damaged by the November 26 earthquake, funded and supervised by international partners and the Development Fund. It is enough to emphasize here the fact that out of all the funds opened by the Municipality of Tirana, about 40 million euros, 6 million are going towards the reconstruction of the “Sami Frashëri” high school, about 12 million euros are going towards the reconstruction of 8 other schools, and part the remaining 22 million euros is going towards the reconstruction of student residences (with the same fixed cost of about 3 million euros per building), and social centers.
According to the Albanian law on the right to information with official documents, information on reconstruction should be public and easily accessible, included in the program. Transparency, or ideally in a specific corner of the website of the Municipality of Tirana, seeing the importance given to the reconstruction program by all actors. The opposite resulted from this investigation, where it is many times easier to have transparency and get answers from international institutions operating in the territory of Albania, than from local institutions. It is infinitely easier to get information from institutions like the European Union, even through a simple phone call, than from the Municipality of Tirana, where despite the existence of the press office and public relations team, the only answer you can get is “send a request for information ”; a request for information for which in the best case you manage to get a partial response outside the legal deadlines, and in the worst case, you are obliged to initiate a complaint procedure with the Commissioner for the Right to Information.
The lack of transparency raises questions not only about confronting commitments with accomplishments but also about the very costs of (re)building schools by local authorities. Numerous delays may be justified by the “pandemic period”, but there is no excuse for the lack of basic information on the reconstruction of schools after the 2019 earthquake. The lack of transparency becomes more apparent in the face of the full and detailed information found in the projects funded by the EU and UNDP.
* Any information received regarding the tenders announced by the Municipality of Tirana for the reconstruction program was obtained from the portal OpenProcurement, because both on the website of the Public Procurement Agency and on the website of the Municipality of Tirana it was impossible to find the required information.