ASHGABAT -- Many schools in the authoritarian country of Turkmenistan have suddenly stopped the notorious practice of forcing parents to pay for school upgrades after independent media reported on the illegal extortion, Ashgabat residents say.
They also claimed that education and law enforcement officials have visited many Ashgabat schools in recent days, apparently to investigate the allegations of illegal money collections.
Citing several parents in Ashgabat and other cities, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service (known locally as Radio Azatlyk) reported that school administrations often demand students pay for school renovations at least once a year.
The amount they demand varies in each school, but usually ranges from about $28 to $42 per student. But students set to graduate this year must pay about $85 each, the parents said.
"After the reports by Azatlyk, representatives of the Education Ministry and prosecutors began visiting schools in Ashgabat to check [the allegations]," said a parent from the Turkmen capital on May 18.
There has been no official comment by Turkmen authorities to the RFE/RL reports, and visits by the officials also came with no prior announcement.
As the rumors of the visits spread in the city, school directors abruptly stopped collecting money, an Ashgabat resident said.
"Now, teachers are demanding students who had already paid the money to say that nobody had asked them for it," the parent said. He added that the students were ordered not to give any information to RFE/RL's Turkmen Service or other media.
"The teachers are threatening the students with 'grave' consequences," the man said. He spoke on condition of anonymity as Turkmen authorities don't tolerate criticism.
In the past several weeks, many schools in Ashgabat and other cities have also been collecting money from students to purchase portraits of the country's new president, Serdar Berdymukhammedov, to replace the photos of his predecessor -- his father.
Berdymukhammedov took over the presidency in March from Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, who had ruled Turkmenistan with an iron fist since late 2006.
Large portraits of the Turkmen president always adorn the walls of schools, offices, and buildings, as well as street billboards all over the country.
The Europe-based independent website Khronika Turkmenistan also confirmed that at least three schools in Ashgabat had ended their money collections in recent days.
Instead, school administrations are asking parents to bring paint, brushes, and other material for school renovations if they can afford to. But they are no longer putting pressure on poor families, the website reported.
RFE/RL tried to contact the Education Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office on May 18 but received no response.
School upgrades in Turkmenistan take place during the summer holidays. Sources say the government doesn't allocate money for renovations, leaving it to the school administration to try to raise the funds.
Each class in Turkmen schools has its own head teacher who is tasked with collecting money. If head teachers fail to raise the amount set by the school administration they must pay the rest from their own salaries, several teachers told RFE/RL.
"Otherwise, the head teacher faces demotion or will even be transferred from a full-time position to part-time," a teacher from Ashgabat told RFE/RL on condition of anonymity. "So, the head teachers try to deliver at any cost in order to keep their jobs."
Head teachers in Ashgabat make about $570 a month on average, the teacher said. Teachers with part-time positions earn about $245 monthly.
Forcing parents to pay for renovations and other similar projects is widespread in Turkmenistan and other Central Asian countries. Parents claim that if they don't pay, teachers retaliate by giving their children lower grades.
The illegal money collections have put a strain on many families in Turkmenistan, where the economy has long been plagued by massive unemployment, food shortages, and poverty despite the Central Asian country holding vast gas reserves.
Larger families that have several school-age children are hit the hardest as they often have to cut back on food and other essentials to pay for the school projects, parents say.