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School land lease divides former friendly neighbours
FOR MANY years the English School and Junior School were friendly neighbours, sharing a prime piece of extensive, forested real estate in the centre of Nicosia, but that friendship has turned sour with one school accusing the other of engaging in a vicious land grab.
The increasingly acrimonious falling out started in June when the Junior School signed a lease agreement with the government to the tune of €1000 a month for 99 years for a piece of land next to their school grounds to extend their premises. Unfortunately the land the Junior School coveted and signed the lease for houses the recently refurbished English School Old Boys and Girls Association (ESOBGA) club house.
The response from ESOBGA has been vitriolic and it accused the Junior School of trying to take land from under the English School’s noses.
“We’ve attempted to be dignified,” chairman of the Junior School board, Nick Papandreou told the Sunday Mail. “We tried to find a solution but they (ESOBGA) have attacked members of our board personally,” he added.
“We’ve been accused of going behind ESOBGA and English School’s back to get the lease in record time,” Papandreou explained. “We followed legal procedure by finding out who owned the land, the government, and making a lease agreement with them.”
He also dismissed claims that the Junior School had used connections within the government to get the lease agreement in record time.
“Those are false as we applied back in October 2010,” he said.
ESOBGA, the Junior School says, has accused them of being a private, profit-making organisation and one that intends to destroy the environment by chopping down swathes of trees near the clubhouse and adding to traffic congestion in the area. The school has also been accused of leasing the land in order to build new premises for their sister secondary school, The Senior School, which at present is located elsewhere in Nicosia.
The Junior School has denied the allegations saying the institution was established in 1948 as a not-for-profit organisation. Their revenues and assets can only be used to forward the aims of the school, the school said in a recent statement.
“The Junior School has no intention or plans whatsoever of commissioning any kind of building facilities within this leased plot of forest land. The plot in question will be exclusively used as a much needed schoolyard and for sports facilities,” the school’s statement said.
As for the plans to move the Senior School, the school board said they are currently in the final stages of securing a suitable plot from the Archbishopric for the new premises and will publicise the location once they have signed legal documents.
The Junior School said it was the English School’s alumni, not their school which threatened the local environment.
“It is the ESOBGA itself that has, through the years, shown a blatant disregard to the forest environment and the surrounding neighbourhood by operating, without any licence whatsoever,” the statement said.
“The public’s best interests are better served through the upgrading of a non-for-profit school, which through its operations saves the government and the taxpayer approximately €10 million annually (based on government figures of the cost of public education) rather than by turning a blind eye and supporting a facility, illegally built within forest land, which is operated as a coffee shop, kebab house and meeting place of an association of leavers of a private school.”
But ESOBGA members remain convinced they have been treated shoddily and that the Junior School has mishandled the way it leased the land.
“We have been neighbours for so long and always had a great relationship with the Junior School, their headmaster and the chairman of the board,” head of ESOBGA, Magda Nicholson told the Sunday Mail this week. “So it was a big shock to find out that they had gone behind our backs, straight to the ministry. To think that many of those on the Junior School board are English School alumni makes it even harder to believe and comprehend.”
ESOGBA has currently filed an interim with the courts to delay the Junior School acting on the lease. It is a move that Nicholson regrets but she said the Junior School had left them with no choice.
“Things were not done correctly on their behalf and we wouldn’t have been forced to file an interim order against the Junior School if they had just come to us with any demands they had,” Nicholson said. “We could have sat down and come to some kind of compromise to find a solution instead of making us feel like we were being completely undermined and forced to react to their actions.”
With a lease agreement in place it would appear that it is checkmate to the Junior School, but Nicholson remains defiant.
“We wouldn’t have pushed through an interim order had we not believed we could win,” she said. “Some people say we may be fighting a losing battle and that the interim order was only filed to delay the inevitable, but we believe that justice will be upheld.”
Papandreou was equally scathing. “They have knowingly said lies about zoning, about the legality of the building and about what we plan to build just to drum up support,” he said.
“Even though I am an alumnus, with their actions and words, I no longer feel that ESOBGA represents me.”