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Czech Republic: Class Struggles -- School Year Postponed As Flood Costs Are Tallied (Part 3)

In the Czech Republic, this month's devastating floods have disrupted life for many teachers and pupils who should be heading back to school next week. Many schools in flood-stricken regions have been forced to send pupils to schools elsewhere in the country or push back the start of the school year. Some need the extra time to clean up and rebuild classrooms ravaged by the floodwaters. Others are holding off until transport difficulties ease. In this third part of "Class Struggles," our four-part series on education issues in our broadcast area, RFE/RL reports on one of the worst-hit schools in the Czech capital, Prague.

Prague, 30 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- There are new sounds in parts of Prague these days that are quickly becoming familiar: industrial dryers operating at full blast drying out flood-soaked basements while city workers spray water and disinfectant.

This is Trojska Street in Troja, one of the areas of the Czech capital worst hit when the swollen Vltava River spilled its banks two weeks ago in the worst flood in more than 100 years.

Troja's schools, like many houses, pensions, and offices, did not escape unscathed. Two of them, a state elementary school and a private secondary school, share a building on Trojska Street that now resembles a construction site more than a school gearing up for the new academic year.

Members of the local Emergency Committee sit on benches by the playground while workmen dry out the basement and lay new concrete floors.

The first floor is a tumble of tables, chairs, and bookcases salvaged before the floodwaters inundated the ground floor. In one classroom, sleeping bags lie neatly folded on the floor and a doll sits in a toy stroller nearby -- evidence the building is still serving as one of the city's evacuation centers for residents forced to leave their homes.

Radim Jendrejas is principal of the private school, the Svatopluk Cech secondary school. He said equipment alone will cost some $10,000 to replace, and that's not counting the reconstruction costs, which are likely to be several times higher.

Jendrejas said the floodwaters ruined 70 percent of his school: classrooms, a prized library, a science laboratory, and the dining hall, where he surveys the churned-up floor. "This is where the school dining hall was. Unfortunately, the basements were flooded and the floor tiling that was in the dining hall completely collapsed. You can still see here that the earth is cracked, so the reconstruction will be hardest here. The floor will have to be raised, and apart from concrete, we'll probably have to bring in gravel too and strengthen it all so that no further collapse happens. You can see the floor has dropped here so this will be the hardest bit to do," Jendrejas said.

Remarkably, some Svatopluk Cech students are still taking preterm exams, but the new school year -- scheduled to start on 2 September -- has clearly been disrupted. Jendrejas and his staff have been busy arranging alternate places for their students to take classes. Some will go to outdoor centers in the countryside, while others will be taking trips to Poland or Denmark. The hope is that the school will resume functioning normally on 23 September, three weeks later than scheduled.

Alois Pacik, principal of the adjoining elementary school, said he was "on the verge of tears" when he saw the first puddle seep through the school's hastily built flood barrier. Pacik said his school will also be taking around half its 80 pupils to outdoor schools before they can resume classes at home in early October.

It's a typical story for schools in the towns throughout the Czech Republic that have been devastated by the floods. Schools in Ceske Budejovice, Decin, Usti nad Labem, and elsewhere have all decided to extend their holidays or take pupils to outdoor schools.

In Prague, some 150 elementary and secondary schools will start one or two weeks later. Some, like the Troja schools, need the extra time to clean up and rebuild classrooms ravaged by the floodwaters. Others contacted by RFE/RL said they're holding off to let transportation difficulties ease. In total, some 15,000 elementary and secondary students in Prague will be affected by the flood recovery efforts.

It's not the only way the floods have caused headaches for the Czech education system.

The nationwide reconstruction bill is expected to reach some $3 billion, much of which is likely to come out of the public purse.

But money is already tight: The state budget deficit planned for next year is a record $5 billion. So one proposal on the table is for the new government to postpone pay hikes for public-sector workers, including the country's 166,000 teachers.

Not surprisingly, the teachers union is unhappy with the proposal. Chairman Jaroslav Roessler said it's not fair for the government to squeeze money from a profession that is already poorly paid. Teachers now earn around 50 percent more than they did seven years ago. But at $480 a month, the salary is still just a fraction above the national average of $450. Roessler said that for anyone holding a university degree, this is a paltry sum. "We all have to realize that the floods have given the government different priorities than they had before coming to power. But I think it would be fair for everyone in the country to share equally in paying for the damage, not just teachers," Roessler said.

Talks today between public-sector unions and the Labor and Finance ministries appeared to reach a preliminary compromise solution that would give the workers approximately half the scheduled pay rise. The decision is still pending official government and parliamentary approval.

Back in Troja, residents across from the school are busy throwing out wheelbarrows full of rubble from their mud-caked gardens. Farther along, piles of flood-damaged furniture and other garbage line the road.

Troja's mayor, Oldrich Adamek, visited the two schools on 28 August, as he has done every day since they became the focal point of the area's battle against the floods. He said the quick progress on the schools' reconstruction is just one example of how Troja's residents, as well as people from farther afield, pulled together first to defend against the floods and then to help in the cleanup afterward. "There were people from five fire brigades here, from Karlovy Vary, Liberec, [and] small villages. They helped us get the water out and then the cleaning started. We got a very professional firm to do it. Now you see, after seven days, all the walls have been stripped, all the [damaged] floors have been removed, including the broken one from the hall that was a dining room. There was a thin wall there that separated the dining areas -- that's gone too. And now today we're standing on a new floor," Adamek said.

Up on the school roof, elementary-school principal Pacik points out the area that until a few days ago was under water. He's optimistic that life in the school, and in Troja as a whole, will eventually be back to how it was before the floods. But he said that process will take time. "It feels like you're at the seaside, not on the roof of a school in Troja. It's going to take a long time to get back to normal," Pacik said.

In the meantime, the city's students, and their parents, will have to be patient until it's business as usual at schools like Pacik's.