Schools are increasingly facing difficult choices that could threaten the quality of children's education as they are buckling under the rising energy prices, further increased by Covid-19 measures.
The increasing energy bills have been weighing heavily on Belgian households for months now, but this has also become an insurmountable problem for education, with schools expecting their energy costs to increase by more than half in two years' time.
"Rising energy prices are a millstone around the necks of our schools. Their financial viability is under threat and in order to keep the bills right, they are faced with tough choices that threaten to affect the quality of education itself," Lieven Boeve, Director-General of Catholic Education Flanders (KOV), said.
In addition to the energy prices rising, consumption in most schools has skyrocketed as well, due to the various Covid-19 measures that schools have to put in place.
"Schools are constantly ventilating, meaning they have to stoke up the fires to keep the classrooms warm, or the ventilation system is running at full speed to provide maximum contact education despite the coronavirus crisis. This leads to considerably higher energy consumption and even higher energy costs," Boeve explained.
'Hit us in the core'
For Catholic schools in Flanders, this could mean an additional expenditure of at least €45 million, resulting in some schools having to allocate an extra 6% of their operating budget to the increase in energy prices.
For many schools, this comes on top of already substantial cuts in operating budgets, resulting in schools increasingly facing financial struggles and having to cut back on their educational activities.
- Coronavirus barometer for education approved: how it works
- Coronavirus school closures and quarantines lead to an increase in temporary unemployment
RHIZO, a secondary school in Kortrijk, paid €489,367 for energy in 2020 (12.2% of its operating budget), but this increased to €595,422 (14.8%) in 2021 and it expects an invoice for as much as €900,000 (21%) this year.
"The rising energy costs put pressure on future investments, both infrastructural and pedagogical-didactical," Nancy Dedeurwaerder, RHIZO's general director, said.
"It also limits our efforts in the professionalisation of our teachers. In short, the energy costs hit us in the core of educational development and the quality of education."
Tax reduction for schools too
The KOV is now calling on the government to reduce the energy bills for schools as well, in light of the announcement of Tuesday that measures would be implemented to soften the hike in energy prices for consumers, to avoid this extra cost being passed on to the school bill for the parents.
It suggests that the VAT on energy should also be decreased to 6% for schools and to grant them financial compensation to cushion the hike in prices.
"We regret that the federal government has ignored the school boards. We are looking into whether we can do something and if so, what," Flemish Education Minister Ben Weyts said in a statement to The Brussels Times. "However, it would be strange to give educational resources to energy giants."