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School fees: Between Kano government and private school owners

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Governor of Kano State<br />Dr. Abdullahi Umar Ganduje PHOTO:Twitter


The north is reputed to be home to a large number of out-of-school children, and governors from the zone have been making moves to tackle this challenge by providing the needed infrastructure and encourage parents to register their wards in school. In Kano, while public education is free, the state government, in a move to support parents, recently directed private school owners to reduce their third term fees by 25 per cent to cushion the effect of lockdown imposed on schools as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this move may pit the state government against school owners, who are insisting that government has no right to regulate fees being charged parents.

Citing current economic realities, the state government said parents deserve some reprieve, considering the devastating impact of the pandemic on businesses and jobs, moreso when the third term by design, is already reduced to seven instead of the standard 13 weeks life span. As a result, it directed that fees should be reduced by 25 per cent.

But the school owners kicked against the directive, describing government’s action as highly insensitive. They wondered why a government that failed to give teachers stimulus package or relief materials throughout the period of the lockdown would now be dictating to proprietors how much they should charge as fees. “For instance, several jobs were lost during the lockdown, and with no palliatives from government, we could not help members of staff from excruciating pains of hunger, starvation and hopelessness that heralded the period of lockdown. Why would government heap the entire burden of the economic loss on proprietors alone?”  

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In statement under the aegis of joint committee of private and voluntary school associations in Kano, the private school owners insisted that there would not be any reduction. The group expressed concern over media propaganda deployed by the government to announce the compulsory implementation of the reduction, when concerned parties were yet to sign any agreement to that effect.

The joint committee, comprising Association of Model Islamic Schools (AMIS), National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools (NAPPS) and Independent School Proprietors Association, Kano (ISPAK), said government must state the rationale for the 25 per cent discount.

Signed by leaders of the three associations, Basheer Adamu Aliyu for AMIS, Alhaji Muhammad Adamu for NAPPS, and Mrs Fatima Bello on behalf of ISPAK, the committee wondered why private schools owners would be compelled to bear the burden of the economic hardship alone when the education system suffered the most during the lock down, without any financial assistance or palliatives from the state.

“Unfortunately, the ministry of education had issued a press release that government will not rescind its decision to cancel third term if majority of the proprietors refuse to comply with the directive on fees reduction.”

A proprietor who pleaded anonymity told The Guardian that government is out to victimise any school that fails to implement the reduction.
  
“We are presently at a crossroads on this issue because government has failed to listen to our cry. They told us never to talk to the press on this matter anymore; yet they have continued to use media propaganda against us, portraying us in bad light and as enemies of parents. Right now, government is ready to victimise any school that refuses to implement the 25 per cent cut.

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This is totally unfair. Many proprietors cannot afford to pay their rent, salaries and other utilities. We asked government for incentives because we did not get any palliative; we asked for tax relief but government did not accede to any of these requests.
 
Angered by the rejection, government has threatened to sanction any operator found wanting. Already, it has instituted a 27-member committee to enforce the implementation of the reduction. The Commissioner for education, Mallam Muhammad Sanusi Kiru said the state government is worried about the untold hardship inflicted on citizens as a result of the pandemic, which informed the directive to schools to give 25 per cent discount.

Contrary to claims by operators that government did not support private schools during the pandemic, he said government disinfected almost all the centres and distributed personnel protective equipment, including thermometers, a gesture he said the operators failed to acknowledge or reciprocate.

“We have set up a committee on fees reduction with some private school operators as members. The committee met and came up with five per cent reduction and our response as government was that that was not enough because in some states like the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) and Kogi, third term had been canceled completely. We are aware of the politics involved, and our expectation was that a large percentage of the schools would comply.

“I have the prerogative as commissioner of education to cancel third term and I hope they will not allow us to do that before they comply. We are hoping the factions who are rejecting the directive will comply. It does not even make any sense because third term is about seven weeks and by January, parents will be asked to pay for another term. And let me emphasise that as long as I remain the commissioner for education in Kano, we are going to introduce more radical sanctions against private schools. We are aware some operators are compelling parents to buy uniforms and textbooks from them, making extra charges. We would make it optional.     

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“Whoever feels he/she is ready to fight this government, we would let such a person know that this government is ready to impose more sanctions. Private schools are not supposed to be uniform sellers; they are not supposed to be booksellers because they are not accredited publishers. We would stop them from compelling parents on these things; it is exploitative. We would be very serious about the activities of private schools because some are not even paying their workers minimum wage while some are operating within two rooms,” the commissioner said.
 
The commissioner’s outburst has however generated mixed reactions, as some accused government of violating the rights of private school operators. Although they agreed with the reasons adduced by government for the reduction in school fees, they however faulted the threat by the commissioner, saying those who disagreed with the proposition were merely expressing their fundamental rights. They maintained that private schools, like other business ventures should be treated the way private investments are handled

A stakeholder, who preferred anonymity, said apart from general regulation of core mandate, government direct interference on private entities, to the point of determining their profit margin could simply amount to violation of fundamental right, which could be tested at any competent court of jurisdiction. It is also imperative to ask, what was the impact of government on the pains and difficulties private schools suffered during the COVID-19 induced lockdown?

“Although government claimed private schools were part of facilities disinfected during the pandemic, it is worrisome that it could not muster similar courage of imposing cost and reduce prices of other businesses, such as hospitals, shopping malls, event centres and even marketplace,’ the source said.    

A proprietor who pleaded anonymity for fear of victimisation told The Guardian that some school owners are presently bankrupt after collecting several loans to beef up investment, which the lockdown has impacted negatively. He lamented that many have dismissed half of their teaching staff due to inability to pay salaries.

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“Regrettably, government had shown little or no concern on how the private operators could rejuvenate the lost strength; instead it is allegedly deploying divide and rule tactics, which prompted one, out of the four associations to quickly back out of the joint committee of private school owners to accept the 25 per cent reduction.

A legal practitioner, Muhammad Saeed Tudun Wada said government was wrong to have compelled private schools owners to reduce their charges. He insisted that as genuine as government intention seems to represent, the approach was misplaced in the eye of the law.
  
“By the virtue of item 62(e) of the Exclusive Legislative List of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended), only the National Assembly can control prices of goods and commodities – and, even then, only essential goods and commodities. In other words, the action of the Kano State government is ultra vires, invalid, null and void.

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“Kano State government does not possess the mandate to dictate on fees payable by private business enterprises or their charges.  It can however, determine what public institutions could charge. Dialogue with stakeholders is the way forward. I mean, since we are operating a democratic set up; government should have explored dialogue option. The school owners should however, consider the plight of the citizenry, especially during this post COVID-19 and the global downturn in economic activities”.
  
An educationist, Dr. Abubakar Sideeq Haruna also considered government’s directive as irrational, moreso when all sectors were affected by the pandemic.

Dr. Abubakar cautioned the state government to weigh the consequences of cancelling the third term on children, suggesting an amicable resolution where the government would reduce the burden of private operators instead of issuing needless threats. 

“I think the state government should understand that private schools are tax paying organisations. Even though government is trying to check the impact of the pandemic, it is imperative for them to understand that schools suffer the same degree of pain and deprivation.

“I believe government can also help schools by taking a substantial part of the 25 per cent. Remember, many proprietors could not pay salaries; they could not pay rent and other challenges as they arose. In the alternative, government can offer tax holidays to reduce their burden too. In all, dialogue should be the hallmark of the whole matter, not until you intimidate schools that already carry enough burden,” he added.

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