School-less in Kyiv

Years of sprawl, along with developers’ empty pledges to build private schools, are creating a crisis in the city’s suburbs. Second in an occasional series.

This is the second in an occasional series of articles on the implications of private education in TOL’s region.

KYIV | Oksana and Ludmila are plotting a covert operation.

“Don’t show your real address when you talk to the teacher and to the principal. Give them mine,” Ludmila, a former teacher at a primary school in the town of Vyshneve just outside Kyiv, tells Oksana. “If they don’t check the documents at the initial stage, then you have a chance.”

This is no terrorist attack in the works. Oksana – who, like Ludmila, asked that her last name not be divulged – is simply trying to get her 6-year-old son into school.

Ukrainian law says every child is entitled to an education, but for many children those are just words on paper. For years the country has underinvested in schools. The cumulative effect of mushrooming residential development, overcrowding in city schools, and neglect of school buildings is exacerbated by a wave of refugees from war-torn eastern regions.

Oksana’s family lives in Sofia, a new community a five-minute drive south of Kyiv where almost 30 apartment blocks have been built –but not a single school.

Nearby Vyshneve has four public schools and is accessible from Sofia by public transportation, but its schools are not supposed to admit students from elsewhere. Desperate parents are resorting to trickery or bribes to get their children admitted.

Oksana managed to get her son in without greasing any palms, but she is prepared to do so if anyone discovers he is enrolled illegally.

“This problem is the same in any region near Kyiv,” said Natalia Klokar, director of the Kyiv regional education department. “Residential development goes on at high speed, while social infrastructure doesn’t develop at all.”

Twenty-three years ago Ukraine started its transition from a Soviet-style planned economy to a market system. But infrastructure-related issues remain a wild card, with few effective laws or regulations.

Developers often start building without permits, or with permits for low-rise buildings only, all the while pre-selling apartments. If the buildings come in higher than permits allow, or fail to get permits at all, developers appeal to the courts to have the buildings legalized, arguing that people have already moved in.

In addition, developers usually assure prospective buyers that they plan to build a private school and a kindergarten, but such pledges do not appear in customer agreements and are typically never fulfilled. This is what happened in Sofia. Some residents complain that when they confronted the developer, he told them education is the government’s responsibility.

Sometimes, though, residents force the developer’s hand.

Svetlana Lutsyuk, who used to live in Kyiv’s Likograd neighborhood, said it was only after fed-up apartment owners came close to storming a property firm’s offices there last year that the company started building a small, private elementary school – at a cost of 350 euros ($450) per month to attend.

“But it’s still not enough for the huge residential area they’ve built,” said Lutsyuk, whose family moved to another part of Kyiv because of the infrastructure problems in Likograd.

Volodymyr Plakhotnyuk, who has been the principal at a school in Vyshneve since 1994, said the problem worsens every year and could ultimately lead to the collapse of the local education system.

“My school was planned for 360 pupils. Guess how many we teach nowadays? Last year there were almost 800; now it’s as many as 940 pupils,” he said.

Plakhotnyuk attributed the enrollment spike to a community of 12 high-rise apartment blocks that went up 10 years ago.

In a tour of his school, the principal points out how students are crammed into every available space, including storage rooms. Additional classrooms are built in hallways originally designed as a free space for students to relax. This year desks were even put in the school’s workshop spaces, such as shop and home-economics classrooms.

Even with the creative use of space, the school has been forced to teach in two shifts, and next year could be even worse: Plakhotnyuk said another residential district is being developed nearby and his public school will be obliged to accept every child living there.

Plakhotnyuk’s frustration is palpable, especially because there is a solution to his school’s plight close at hand, but still out of reach. Right next door, a school with room for 720 students has been under construction since 2007.

Klokar, the regional education official, said the building needs only finishing touches and equipment, at an estimated cost of 1 million euros ($1.3 million), but year after year the local budget comes up short. She predicted that would not change anytime soon.

Last year the Education Ministry sought to resolve the issue of dual school shifts by fiat. Then-Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk decreed that the practice should end – on pain of dismissal for principals who do not comply – but offered no advice for dealing with the crush of students.

The order was later canceled, but not before sending a shudder through the ranks of local school officials. “What should I do if new residential buildings are built next to my school every year?” said Tetyana Pashynska, principal of another school in Vyshneve, recalling her thoughts – and likely echoing those of many colleagues – before the rule was rescinded.

Private schools, which fared poorly in a recent ranking of graduation exam scores, are not much of an alternative. An informal survey of private institutions in Kyiv showed tuition fees ranging from 3,000 euros to 12,900 euros per year. That is out of reach for most families in the capital, where the average monthly salary is equivalent to about 300 euros after a devaluation of Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia.

In addition, most of the city’s 45 private schools are in the center, far away from the outskirts where sprawl has packed the public schools.

The expensive and cumbersome approval process for private schools means few get built, Klokar said. One new kindergarten that had to pay 6,000 euros for its fire safety inspection alone – one of several inspections it would have to undergo. The owner of the school is considering shutting down before it has even welcomed students, she said.


This year, it will not be just new residential developments putting pressure on schools. As of late August, 120,000 refugees were registered in Ukraine, one-third of them children, according to government statistics. The UN’s refugee agency’s estimates are higher, with the war in the east creating about 400,000 refugees, half of them inside Ukraine.

According to a deputy education minister, that will not present a problem in the classroom.

“On average, Ukrainian schools function below capacity. That means that technically there won’t be a problem finding places for those who left the Donbass,” Inna Sovsun said in a recent television interview, referring to the eastern Donetsk basin region.

That might be true if those displaced children could enroll in any school, but many have come to Kyiv, where their parents look for work, and no new school facilities have been created for them. Further, many speak Russian, and the few Russian-language schools in Kyiv are besieged by new applicants.

Ask someone in the Kyiv neighborhood of Poznyaky for directions to the Slavyanska high school, which offers classes in Russian, and the locals will assume you’re a refugee. Dozens of parents from the Donbass go to Slavyanska every day seeking a place for their children, to no avail.

One day in mid-August, Valeria Zosimova was among them. A refugee from Donetsk, she stood at the school’s reception desk trying to get her two children in.

“We can’t take you, there’s no room. No places at all. We already have up to 40 pupils in every class, the school is overloaded,” the woman at the desk told her.

Zosimova decided to keep trying and got into a line with about a dozen other parents outside the principal’s office, hoping for a chance to persuade her.

Several days later Zosimova said in a phone interview that she’d had no luck and had been forced to place her children in a Ukrainian-language school. That’s a choice that will not work for every refugee.

Still, officials like Sovsun – likely counting on the war ending within a few months – dismiss the need for a systemic approach to the problem. But even if their bet pays off and refugees go home, students in Kyiv are left with decrepit, overcrowded schools in Kyiv, and no one seems to have a solution for that.

Klokar puts the blame on local authorities who could, but do not, demand that developers build community facilities alongside new houses and apartments. She linked those lax controls to corruption, saying, “It would be enough for [local government officials] to stop stealing and taking bribes, and the country would prosper.”

Corruption permeates society in Ukraine, which ranks 144th of 177 countries in Transparency International’s most recent Corruption Perceptions Index.

Klokar predicted the problem will only get worse as some schools deteriorate to the point where they can no longer be used.

The war in eastern Ukraine has tapped any available resources, but long before the war started, spending on education was not a priority here. In the past two decades, Ukraine has spent hardly anything on renovation of Soviet-era schools.

In January, then-President Viktor Yanukovych boasted that 54 new schools had opened in 2013, but that amounts to 0.28 percent of the 19,300 schools in operation, many of them built in the 1940s and ’50s. Assuming that all schools will eventually need to be replaced, at the current rate it would take more than 350 years.

“Most school buildings are worn out. If we just sit and wait, in another 20 years we’ll reach the point where every school is in critical condition,” Klokar said. “Then we’ll have no facilities for primary and secondary education. That’s why it’s critically important to overhaul existing schools.”

Mykola Ivashko heads the education department in the Kyivo-Svyatoshinsky district, where Sofia and Vyshneve are located. He is trying to find ways to force developers to make contributions to the community, even for existing projects.

“I know for certain that developers make as much as 30 percent profit. If we applied part of that abnormal profit to social infrastructure, it would solve all the problems,” Ivashko said.

One avenue used in other countries, requiring local businesses contribute directly to schools, is closed to educators in Ukraine by a recent anti-corruption law.

Plakhotnyuk, from the Vyshneve school, noted that the principal of a nearby school was prosecuted for approaching companies for help.

“I can’t even ask local businesses to buy some chalk for the school, even if it used to be a normal practice. The law treats that as corruption,” he said.

This post was written by Sergiy Sydorenko  and was originally posted on Transitions Online. Home page photo by Aimaina Hikari /Wikimedia Commons.


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