Politicians and parents in Castlebar, Co Mayo, are urging the Department of Education to find a new premises for the town's first Educate Together national school, after the initial building it offered was deemed unfit for use by the school patron.
Among local representatives criticising the department was Independent councillor Michael Kilcoyne, who said the State had "loads of resources in Castlebar and needn't have depended on the church for a home for the school".
The premises offered to Educate Together was the former Burren National School, 8km outside Castlebar, which has been closed for over 30 years and is in significant disrepair.
Educate Together said the department had issued an unacceptable “ultimatum” this week to accept the school as a permanent home, prompting the department to accuse Educate Together of doing a U-turn on the deal.
The department took a more conciliatory tone yesterday, with a spokesman saying it welcomed the view expressed by the multidenominational patron “that we can work together to find a permanent solution for an Educate Together school in Castlebar over the next 12 months”.
The row has highlighted problems with divesting schools from Catholic patronage, including a lack of progress on planned school amalgamations to make room for new patrons.
A value-for-money report prepared by the Department of Education two years ago identified 32 primary schools in Co Mayo – all of them of Catholic patronage – suitable for merger due to their small size and close proximity to one another.
The report was shelved, however, with Taoiseach Enda Kenny understood to have led the opposition at Cabinet to the amalgamation plans that were being prepared by former minister for education Ruairí Quinn.
Educate Together chief executive Paul Rowe acknowledged that amalgamations would help on a national basis, but he added that "the constitutional and human rights of parents to equality-based education should never be based on the actions of the Catholic Church, or the availability of State premises at a particular time".
Documents obtained by The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act earlier this year showed that two pairs of small Catholic schools outside Castlebar had been on the list for proposed amalgamation, which could have created a vacant premises.
The proposed mergers were of Clogher NS with Burriscarra NS; and Scoil Gort An Éadain with Craggagh NS.
Two other amalgamations were proposed outside Westport, one of which involved Carrakennedy National School, where Mr Kenny used to teach.
St Joseph’s National School in Mr Kenny’s home parish of Islandeady was on a separate list of one- and two-teacher schools facing possible merger with larger schools in the vicinity.
St Joseph’s is located 4.3km from a three-teacher school south of Castlebar.