Principal Underestimates Cost To Build New School

Back in June, NPR's Planet Money team profiled a school in Haiti that was struggling. Listeners responded by donating $3,000 for a new building. And yet, months later, there's little more than a foundation.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We brought you a story last spring about a school in the Haitian town of L'Artibonite. NPR listeners wanted to know how they could help and the school set up a bank account through a local microfinance company. In the end, the school raised $3,000 - enough money that the principal, Enselm Simpliste, thought he could build a whole new school. But the emphasis there is in that thought he could build.

Planet Money's Caitlin Kenney explains what happened.

CAITLIN KENNEY: Four months after the money was donated, I went back to the school to see what they had done with it.

(Soundbite of door opening)

KENNEY: Hello.

Principal Simpliste told me through a translator that he was amazed when he went to the bank to get the money. He was so excited and he realized we can do so much more than buy books with this money; we could build an entirely brand new school. So he told the community, that's what we are going to do; we're going to build a new school.

Mr. ENSELM SIMPLISTE (Principal): (Through translator) The way the children react here, it's like after school, when they're walking by with their other comrades from other schools, they're talking like, yeah, I'm going to have a new school. We got that fund from American people so American people are behind us. So come on, man, we're going to fresh also.

KENNEY: Work on the new building began in September and Principal Simpliste told the students it would be finished one month later, in October, but that didn't happen.

So we're standing across the street from where the old school was in this foundation. There's a bunch of concrete blocks in the middle. So tell me how this is going to be set up.

Mr. SIMPLISTE: (Through translator) In this big classroom we're going to have the fifth and sixth grade here.

KENNEY: Four months after the money came in, it's all been spent - all $3,000 dollars is gone, and all the school has to show for it is this foundation and a stack of concrete blocks. There's a hole in the back of it for the bathrooms and it's starting to fill up with trash, and there's chickens and goats roaming all around.

Since visiting the school, I've spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what happened, how the project could have gone so wrong. And the one thing I know for sure is that this is a much bigger project than Principal Simpliste had ever been in charge of. Three thousand dollars is about what a typical Haitian earns in 10 years. It's many, many times bigger than the school's annual budget.

And the principal tried to be responsible with the money. He purchased all the materials himself, but he doesn't have any construction experience and he was wrong about how much rock and sand he would need. He thought three truckloads of each was enough, but it wasn't - it wasn't even close. And the contractor he hired wasn't much help either. Like so many contractors, he just kept saying, oh sorry, this is going to cost a lot more than we talked about.

Mr. SIMPLISTE: (Through translator) I feel really, really ashamed. Every morning I wake up and I see the foundation and I see those concrete blocks. And people around are like making fun of me, because they were aware that a project started, a school was supposed to start and finalized by October.

KENNEY: With no new school, classes are taking place where they were before the money came - across the street, inside a small one-room church. Inside the church, students sit on wooden benches, with no desks and no walls to separate one grade from another. It's loud and hot and the close quarters make concentrating on the teacher nearly impossible.

(Soundbite of children playing)

KENNEY: The students ask every day when the new school will be finished, and Principal Simpliste tells them he doesn't know. Here in L'Artibonite, they're used to this kind of disappointment. It's a very unlucky area. It's right where the cholera outbreak started, and a couple of weeks ago Hurricane Tomas destroyed much of the rice crop, the core of the local economy here.

But in some ways this area hasn't been unlucky enough. The earthquake didn't have much impact this far north, and so L'Artibonite, like much of Haiti, hasn't seen the type of foreign aid that has flooded into the capital. The people who live here don't have many resources and so when they want to change things, they're pretty much on their own. And even when help does come, it's not easy to figure out what to do with it. Four months and $3,000 dollars later, the children at L'ecole Bethlehem are no better off than when we first met them.

Caitlin Kenney, NPR News.

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