(By Shalika Wimalasena | Translated by Akitha Wijayasinghe)
Due to the arbitrary intervention of the Department of Social Services, the functioning of the Sri Sudarshi Special School in Bandarawela and the School for the Deaf and Blind in Polammaruwa, Tangalle, where students with special needs are being educated, has become a serious problem.
Kitchen work ceased by a department decision
The two schools, which were established in 1979, were governed by a single body and the administration of these two schools have been taken over by the Department of Social Services in January 2017. Since then, the administration has been handed over to the Divisional Secretaries, but the salaries of ordinary employees working in schools have not even been paid since last September due to non-release of funds required for the administration.
As a result, the two kitchen employees of the Sri Sudarshi Special School in Bandarawela have also quit their jobs and it has become difficult for the students to even get food. W.M. Gnanatilake, the principal of the school, said that despite the efforts to solve the problem by obtaining food parcels with the help of donors, it has also become more difficult due to the current epidemic. He also stated that he and his wife have to provide food for the students due to these issues.
Order of the government
The school has 123 students from grades one to 11. But these days, schools are only open to 69 students in grades 6-11, and nearly 50 of them stay in school hostels.
The principal pointed out that serious problems are on the rise as the employees who do cleaning dormitories and providing food to these children with special abilities are being absent due to non-payment of their wages, but the school had to be in operation from November 23 as per the government order.
Although attempts were made to close the school due to this difficult situation, the Ministry of Education as well as the health authorities did not allow it and even the power supply is about to discontinued, the principal pointed out. He also stressed to MediaLK that getting the school started after the vacation on 23rd December is a problem under these conditions.
Tangalle’s Polammaruwa School for the Deaf and Blind is the only school for the deaf and blind which conducts classes from Year One to A / L. There are 86 students in the hearing-impaired section and 72 students in the visually impaired section. The Deputy Principal of the school D.G. Kularatne stated that the health authorities had recommended the closure of the school after being informed that there were difficulties in running the school in accordance with the quarantine rules.
Although there are no serious problems with school expenses, the inability to pay the ordinary employees their salaries is a serious problem, the principal said.
An ongoing court case
When inquired by the Social Services Department about the problem that has arisen in these two schools, a senior official said that they cannot say anything to the media, as a result of an ongoing court case. Our attempts to contact Shehan Semasinghe, the Minister of State for Social Services was unsuccessful.
Social Services Ordinance
Established in 1979 under the Aided Schools Act, these two schools for children with special needs have been governed by the Special Education Services Society from the very beginning. The Department of Social Services has informed on 22nd January 2017 that the two schools will be taken over with immediate effect due to the administrative and financial problems of this administrative board.
When inquired in this regard, the Department of Social Services has informed that this acquisition was made under Sections 33 and 34 of the Social Services Ordinance.
However, the Deputy Principal of the Polammaruwa School for the Deaf and Blind in Tangalle states that it is illegal to take over these schools under the relevant provisions. Section 33 of the Social Services Ordinance states that the Department of Social Services can inspect these schools.
According to Section 34 of the Act, if such an investigation is not possible, the department has the power to take legal action and intervene in administrative matters. The Deputy Principal states that these acquisitions were carried out without any judicial process as per the Act.
Case after case
The governing council of the Bandarawela District Court had filed a case under SPL / 417 when it was taken over by the department. The court has ordered that a general meeting be held to select suitable candidates.
Subsequently, a case was filed in the Tangalle District Court regarding an attempt to hold the General Assembly unconstitutionally and the court issued a restraining order suspending the proceedings. The case is being handled by two groups seeking power in the governing council, and they have filed another case in the Colombo High Court.
After that, the the party which had the ruling power has filed a case in the Court of Appeal seeking the Social Services Department to declare the acquisition of the schools illegal. Last August, the Court of Appeal ruled that school administration should be transferred to the previous governing council.
Bank account blocked
However, the principals of both the schools say that the governing council has not been informed in writing to release the funds provided by the Social Services Department to the relevant schools and that the administrative problems remain despite a court order issued because of the blocked bank accounts.
The principals said that they the People’s Bank branch in Tangalle called yesterday (23) and said that the problem would be resolved immediately, but they pointed out that it should be provided in writing. They further question whether it is possible to transact money from a suspended account.
Children’s allowance of 50 rupees
Meanwhile, only Rs. 50 per day is paid for boarding students in special needs schools. According to government criteria, a child should meet his/her daily needs with that 50 rupees.
Ananda Seneviratne, former principal (retired) of Rienzie Alagiyawanna School for children with special needs in Anuradhapura, told MediaLK that the day-to-day running of these schools is being carried out with the help of donors as it is an impossible task.
The former principal said that although he had asked for the amount to be increased to Rs. 100, he had not received any reply. Despite that it was approved to provide a child with special needs with Rs. 150 per day, it has not yet been implemented. The former principal emphasizes that this amount is also given as an attendance allowance.
Accordingly, students will not receive even Rs. 50 if absent. More than 3,200 children with special needs are being educated in 28 such schools across the country. But none of these schools are run by the government. This is because these schools are still governed by the Aided Schools Act.
Prior to 1948, missionary schools in Sri Lanka were functioned under this Act. Subsequently, religious schools and many other educational centers, including pirivenas, were removed from the Act and placed under the full or partial control of the government. However, Seneviratne, the retired principal of the school, points out that schools for children with special needs are still governed by the relevant Act and the government has no responsibility over them.
The right of the children to education
The principals of these schools emphasize that maintaining these schools and meeting the needs of the children is a serious problem when there is not even the minimum patronage provided by the government in this manner in the current epidemic situation.
It is a fact that educators and social activists have consistently pressured governments, both past and present, to include free education as a fundamental right in the Constitution. But so far it has not happened.