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Wallonia takes first step towards saving crumbling schools

Budget Minister Frederic Daerden pictured during a press conference on the budget 2021 for the Federation Wallonia Brussels government (Federation Wallonie Bruxelles - Federatie Wallonie Brussel) in Brussels, Friday 09 October 2020. (BELGA PHOTO LAURIE DIEFFEMBACQ)
10:22 29/01/2021

Schools across Wallonia have been slowly crumbling due to lack of maintenance for years now with buildings deteriorating, toilets running inefficiently and many classrooms lacking adequate insulation. This could all change soon as the government of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation sets out on its mission of large-scale renovation of schools as part of its current legislature.

Frédéric Daerden, the budget minister who is also in charge of school buildings, estimates the cost to renovate the whole school network as between one and two billion euros. A colossal sum for the Federation Wallonia-Brussels which is far from rolling in money. But two major avenues of financial revenue have already been established.

Daerden revealed that the first would be to access resources from the European recovery plan, from which the Wallonia-Brussels Federation will receive €495 million. From this amount, between €200-€250 million could be dedicated to the renovation of schools. A loan of €600 million was also taken out from the European Investment Bank, the EIB. And with this kind of loan, the Federation Wallonia-Brussels must put on the table the corresponding amount. Even if a portion of this total sum is used for the renovation of school buildings, it would already make around a billion available.

Regardless of the school or the network, on the principals' side, the message is the same: "It's more than urgent." The Royal Athenaeum of Mons is housed in many old and important buildings dating back to the 19th century. For the prefect, Françoise Colinia, the scope of the work needed to be done is gigantic. "In 17 years, only the ground floor windows and the girls' toilets have been redone,” Colinia said. “And nothing has ever been insulated."

The prefect also laments the fact that the bureaucracy involved in starting any type of renovation work is laborious and exhausting. "I have to fill out a specific document to the School Buildings department and once it is sent, I have to call back several times to find out what’s happening and sometimes I scream and get angry,” said Colinia. “But I don't criticize them, they are constantly receiving requests from everywhere."

At the Institut Saint-Joseph in La Louvière, some of the buildings date back to 1880. Notably an old chapel and an old theatre, both buildings have been decommissioned and unused for years. The only visitors are pigeons.

Aurore Tourneur, the director, would like to redevelop them. "The theatre has hosted concerts by Brel and Bécaud,” the director said. “Awards ceremonies have taken place there, but it has been closed for years following a safety report by the fire department. This building, which continues to deteriorate, awaits a new life. I want to renovate classes, a gym, a refectory. We are missing classes in primary school, in particular. The project plan has been in place for two years, but we need money for all of this. Same with the chapel. It's a beautiful building but it's damaged. Pieces have already fallen on the sidewalk."

The needs of schools in Wallonia are enormous but how can they all be listed, and renovation plans put in place for so many buildings? A questionnaire will be sent at the beginning of February to all schools of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation to find out the extent of the needs and from there, the principals will have to formulate projects. And Frédéric Daerden's hopes to then move quickly to establish these projects. "With the funds from the European recovery plan, for example, budgets must be committed by the end of 2023. It is the intention that the work be carried out and paid for by the end of 2026."

It is everyone's wish that renovations start quickly. Frédéric Daerden wants to have an overall view in 2021 on funding, modalities, and execution methodology. But Rome was not built in a day. The procedure for public procurement takes time. The same goes for planning permission. "We need to work with the regions to speed up the processes for school buildings and prioritise them," he explained.

So, the project to save the schools is finally launched. But not everything will be possible, nor allowed. Mainly, a lack of money will be the main factor in some renovation projects being dismissed. But this is the first time in decades, a much-anticipated first in many schools in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, that progress has been made to save the crumbling infrastructure of Wallonia’s schools.

Written by Nick Amies