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Man who wanted to close schools to tackle council repair bill set to become leader

Moray Council leader George Alexander is one of five councillors that has stepped down.
Moray Council leader George Alexander is one of five councillors that has stepped down.

The man who pledged to tackle Moray’s crippling repairs bill by closing schools is poised to become council leader.

Forres councillor George Alexander has made no secret of his desire to merge rural classrooms across the region to slash costs.

The former maths teacher pledged to make the issue his top priority during the run-up to the vote as the backlog of work topped £100million – making the region’s schools the worst in Scotland.

And yesterday, council insiders revealed Mr Alexander will be formally nominated as Moray Council’s leader tomorrow after a deal to form an administration was finally struck between six independents and the Conservative group.

Mr Alexander declined to comment last night, adding only: “We will see what happens on Wednesday.”

But fears have already been raised the new administration could become a “slash and burn” regime after other councillors were excluded from talks because they refused to back the introduction of compulsory redundancies among council staff.

Repair bills to get Moray’s 53 schools up to minimum standards soared by £57million over the last year.

Mr Alexander has spoken out previously of his wish to see schools operating at a fraction of their capacity merged with others nearby.

He believes students would reap the rewards from mixing with more pupils in modern facilities.

His vision could soon be set in motion now the Conservatives and independents have seized power of chambers.

It was previously thought the Tories would not have sufficient backing to form an administration.

However, yesterday sources revealed Heldon and Laich councillor Ryan Edwards, who previously said he would not join a group, backed them. Mr Edwards could not be contacted last night.

SNP co-leader Shona Morrison is disappointed her group, which is the largest in the chambers, had been locked out of power.

She added: “It’s very disappointing that six of the independents have chosen to throw their lot in with the Tories.

“We’ve been told that the reason they couldn’t work with us was our commitment to no compulsory redundancies, which suggests they are already planning swingeing cuts to services.”

In their manifesto the SNP insisted they would only back closing schools if it was in the interest of pupils.

Councillors are due to meet in the chambers again tomorrow to agree leadership positions after the opening meeting was adjourned after just two minutes last week.

Independent Speyside Glenlivet councillor Derek Ross revealed his attempt to form a “rainbow coalition” comprising all parties fell on deaf ears in the wake of the delay.

He said: “I took it to the SNP and Conservatives but it got nowhere. They’re obviously happy with Edinburgh interfering by giving instructions not to speak to each other.

“People’s jobs could be at stake here. They couldn’t give me an assurance there wouldn’t be compulsory redundancies. I won’t join an administration on that basis.

“I’ve been impressed with the professionalism of council staff from the election inductions. It’s a shame it appears a slash and burn approach philosophy could now be adopted.”

Labour’s John Divers said: “I came to an agreement with the SNP last week. Yesterday I was asked by the independents and Conservatives if compulsory redundancies was a red line for me and I said ‘yes’. I never heard from them again after that.”

Conservative leader James Allan, who will be nominated as convener, added: “We have got proposals that we will put forward to the full council on Wednesday with the support of six independents and eight Conservatives. I don’t wish to say anything further.”

The answer to teaching crisis?

Fewer schools in the region has previously been hailed as the answer to Moray’s plight in filling classroom vacancies.

The council has revealed in the past that there is already enough teachers on the books to teach all 12,000 pupils if they were spread across less buildings.

During budget consultations the authority started a discussion on social media about a “super school” capable of housing every primary and secondary student in Moray.

Forres councillor George Alexander believes the cash-strapped council’s tight resources would be “wasted” in ploughing £100million into repairing already crumbling schools.

Last month, he said: “A lot of our schools are in the wrong place. It doesn’t make sense to refurbish them when there is the space to accommodate the pupils elsewhere in better buildings and cut the repair bill. It would be a waste.

“The three primary schools in Forres could accommodate all the pupils from Dyke, Logie, Dallas and Alves. That’s an extreme example, I’m not suggesting we do that, but it shows how inefficient the system is.”

A U-turn on shutting schools in Moray almost brought down the previous independent and Conservative-led council coalition.

Hundreds of parents marched on the authority in an attempt to save classrooms that were under threat.

Former leader Allan Wright was forced to step down in 2014 in the wake of proposals to shut Milne’s High School in Fochabers being rejected following the street demonstrations.

The move prompted a ban on any more talks to discuss closures for five years.

But in the build-up to this month’s election it was revealed that any new administration could ignore the moratorium if it wished.