Long awaited Laois special school lies incomplete for past six months

Lynda Kiernan

Reporter:

Lynda Kiernan

Long awaited Laois special school lies incomplete for past six months

Construction site for St Francis Special School in Portlaoise

Children with physical and mental special needs in Laois are being left waiting again for their long promised new school building, even though it is almost finished.

Work on the new St Francis Special School building site on the Borris road in Portlaoise ground to a halt last March as with all other sites when Covid-19 restrictions hit. However, work has not resumed and the site lies silent.

The Leinster Express understands that the construction firm MEIC Ltd is focusing on work at another school which formed part of the same contract, the Educate Together National School in Maynooth, Kildare.

MEIC Ltd was awarded a €12.3 million contract for both schools by the Department of Education in 2018, under the Rapid Build Schools Programme 2017-2019.

Portlaoise Parish Priest Monsignor John Byrne offered the parish owned site to the department for them to build the school. He urges a return to work.

“We are very anxious that there has been no building activity now for close to six months. It is very concerning. Trying to operate the school according to the new norm of Covid-19 when prefabricated inferior buildings are involved is very difficult in comparison to a new building,” he said.

There is just six weeks worth of work left to do at the St Francis school, according to the chairman of the school board Fr Paddy Byrne.

He is optimistic that children will be able to move soon, but also said they are happy where they are in the old school.

“There is no huge delay, we are six weeks away from conclusion. There is an issue between the department and the contractor, to do with a school in Maynooth. My understanding is that the work will commence very very soon. Unfortunately stories of buildings delayed happen to many projects.

“Everything is going well, the school is fully Covid compliant and everyone is very happy. I am conscious that this state funded school is being given to us. We are confident that over the next weeks (work will resume). We are in constant communication with the department and of course they are aware of the medical needs of the children.

“There is an extra burden around Covid as there is in every school, social distancing is always an issue for children with special needs but we have a significant proportion of special needs assistants,” he said.

Michael Gorman was chair of the St Francis School Parents Council New Building Sub-Committee. It disbanded after work began on the new school.

“We are back to seeing people with intellectual and physical disabilities facing into another winter in the old school. Years ago we had a meeting there with local politicians and they experienced first hand the problems, with the cold, the poor wiring and no spaces for quiet time,” he said.

The parish run St Francis Special School has almost 100 pupils aged from 5 to 19, in a cramped under-insulated prefab building on the Timahoe Road.

Parents had long campaigned for a new building, for the health and safety of their children.

The new spacious 12-classroom special needs school was initially to be ready by August 2019 but was delayed even before Covid hit.

The Department of Education gave the following statement.

“The building project to provide a new special school for St. Francis Portlaoise is under construction. Construction ceased during the closure of sites due to public health measures due to Covid-19. Engagement is ongoing in relation to construction recommencing on site”.

MEIC Ltd declined to comment.

Below: The unfinished school on the Borris Road.