Styrian schools set to shut

Dozens of schools will be closed this year, the Styrian government has revealed.

The province’s coalition of Social Democrats (SPÖ), People’s Party (ÖVP) and Freedom Party (FPÖ) said yesterday (Tues) that it planned to shut down 31 primary schools throughout the 2012/2013 term. Schools with just one class of 20 pupils and fewer would be affected, lawmakers explained. The affected schools will be asked to merge with other small educational institutions of the region, a spokesman for the provincial government explained.

The Styrian government also said that it intended to close several secondary modern and vocational schools in the foreseeable future to cut costs. Specialised trade schools will be affected as well by the education reform of SPÖ Governor Franz Voves and ÖVP Vice Governor Hermann Schützenhofer.

The provincial government’s decision to economise the regional educational sector comes after people took to the streets to signalise their disagreement about other spending cuts. Dozens of cultural institutions such as museums of all kind had to accept considerable budget reductions last year. Voves and Schützenhofer also decided to reduce the number of provincial parliament seats to make clear “that we started making cuts affecting our own institutions”.

Some media commentators welcomed the Styrian savings strategy as a well-considered response to the crisis and a successful example for how reforms in the public sector could be made while political rivals of the decision-makers in charge complained about a “neoliberal and unsocial strategy”. The Greens and the Styrian branch of Austria’s Communists (KPÖ) were especially furious about the reintroduction of kindergarten fees only months after the Styrian government decided to cancel charges heaved on young families.

Voves claimed most people and party members were in support of the government’s reform concept. He said residents of the province realised that it was about time to reduce investments and slash debts to ensure the region’s competitiveness in economically challenging times.

Schützenhöfer rejected accusations that his party’s chances for success in the next provincial elections were diminishing due to its decision to closely cooperate with the Social Democrats. The deputy governor of Styria defended the partnership as the only choice if people wanted to get Styria back on track. Schützenhöfer vowed that he “will never hug the SPÖ” and made clear that his faction would not forget to point out where its opinions varied from the SPÖ’s policies in upcoming election campaigns.

Voves had been considered as a possible leadership contender in the Austrian Social Democratic Party for some time before angering fellow party board members by harshly attacking the federal coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP. Both the SPÖ and the ÖVP fared badly in the most recent Styrian parliament election in 2010, a ballot which served up strong gains for the right-wing FPÖ. The party has chances to claim first place in next year’s federal election for the first time in Austrian history, according to public opinion polls. Its chances would soar significantly if the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition collapsed – an event regarded as likely to happen by some observers due to the factions’ strong differences in opinion about important questions.