Kiskunlacháza and the Hungarian National Development Agency

Yesterday I wrote about the political makeup of Kiskunlacháza, a town of 9,000 south of Budapest on the left bank of the Danube. I mentioned the very enterprising mayor who is making a name for himself in certain circles with his fierce anti-Gypsy rhetoric. The town of Kiskunlacháza is becoming notorious in other respect as well: Mayor József Répás and the town council might not have been entirely truthful when they applied for millions of forints from the National Development Agency for a school project. The National Development Agency is in charge of distributing monies received from the European Union as part of the convergence program.

First of all, I must say that Répás and the town council have spared no energy in writing grant proposals to get as much money for the town as possible. According to the website of the National Development Agency the town received altogether 375,552,750 Ft. for four different projects. Two of these involve the town's elementary school. According to the website of Kiskunlacháza there are 900 children attending the school's eight grades. The school's name is Kiskunlacháza-Áporka Általános Iskolai Társulás, indicating cooperation between the larger Kiskunlacháza and the nearby village of  Áporka (population 1,100). The school has five different "campuses." The upper four grades study on the "main campus" on Munkácsy Square while the lower grades are situated at two different locations in town. In addition there is a "special branch" for 41 students with learning disabilities. Apparently most of these students are Gypsies. In addition there is another school building in Áporka. The whole system has only one principal; the other four "campuses" are headed by assistant principals.

Although for the two school projects the town received 272,793,000 from the National Development Agency the town had to come up with an additional 318 million forints, which it didn't have. It had to borrow 284 million forints. Apparently Kiskunlacháza sometime in the 1990s was close to bankruptcy, and some people in town were afraid that history might repeat itself. Especially because the project seemed to be too grandiose for a town of Kiskunlacháza's size. The town asked for grants for two different projects: (1) to renovate the existing building on Munkácsy Square and to build a new "multifunctional" gymnasium and (2) to make the building handicapped accessible. This latter project is laudable in a country where the disabled have a very rough time. Almost nothing is wheelchair accessible. There is only one problem: the Kiskunlacháza local government in their proposal claimed that the school had 41 disabled students. Does that number sound familiar? And from here on I'm relying on Krisztina Ferenczi's articles in Népszava and Népszabadság. Ferenczi is an investigative journalist who has done a lot work uncovering political corruption cases. Mind you, in Hungary such revelations virtually never have any consequences.

The first time Ferenczi wrote about the megaproject was on January 27, 2008, in Népszava. She reported that Répás and his friends misled the National Development Agency when they claimed that there were 41 children in wheelchairs and therefore, predicted Ferenczi, it was possible that the Agency would simply not pay up. Répás claimed that Ferenczi was lying; he, in turn, demanded that Népszava print a correction. However, the paper was in possession of a document that proved that Ferenczi was telling the truth: Kiskunlacháza claimed that "by making the building handicapped accessible the town will be able to provide equal opportunity to the disabled children of the school (41 persons)." At that point Répás backed down and claimed that that was no more than "a slip of the pen." Moreover, he added that "disabled" is a word that encompasses all sorts of handicaps, including learning disabilities. Therefore there was no problem with the application and the grant.

But there are a lot of problems because the 41 "disabled" children (in reality, children in special education classes) are housed one and a half kilometers from the school in a one-story building. They will in no way benefit from the special ramps, the wheelchair accessible bathrooms, and the elevator installed at the central school. They will not be able to use the gargantuan "multipurpose" gym that can be divided up into three separate units. Here is a picture of the newly opened gym. It is quite Kiskunlacháza sportcsarnoka project for a small town. In addition they renovated the old part of the building: new windows, a new furnace, and–oh yes–an additional story built on top of the existing structure. In the new addition there are rooms for the school psychologists, for doctors' offices, separate rooms for aerobic exercises and body building "in order to expand the space for those with handicaps." The gym itself has six fixed and six movable sets of bleachers, a tennis court, a basketball court, and a separate area for badminton. The new courtyard can hold 1,000. More kids than in the whole town schooled at five different locations.

Krisztina Ferenczi visited the building site again a few months ago and wrote another article, also in Népszava (February 26, 2009), in which she elaborated on her attempts to get more information from the National Development Agency. After all, any person who is not a brainless robot should notice reading the town's application for the project that there is something wrong here. How can there be 41 handicapped children in one school district? Moreover, how it is possible that the employee in charge of the project doesn't bother to take a look at the town and its school? How can it be that this official doesn't want to meet these handicapped children? But no, it seems that this person was not interested. His only answer to Ferenczi was that "an applicant cannot lie because such untruth has consequences." Well, this was vague enough.

The official opening took place on June 26. Even Imre Szabó, minister in charge of the environment and waterways, was there. A "millennial flag" was given by the president of the Pest County Council. Oh, the good old days when Fidesz was passing out millennial flags in 2000 at the celebration of the one-thousandth anniversary of Hungarian statehood. The churches that didn't attend the twentieth anniversary of the opening of the iron curtain were out in full force to bless the new building. The National Development Agency also justified the project by declaring learning disabilities a handicap, so all's well. Meanwhile the 41 so-called handicapped children will never see the inside of the swanky gym. They exercise during the winter in the corridors and during spring and fall in a dusty courtyard.

The town now just has to pay back the 284 million forint loan. What will happen to the segregated Gypsy kids? I don't think that too many non-Roma in town care.