Investigation begins into $30,000 school toilets in central Vietnam

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  A restroom measuring 29 square meters in Long Hiep Secondary School in the central province of Quang Ngai reportedly cost nearly VND600 million, one of several such, and the needle of suspicion points at the education department
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Deputy Prime Minister Vu Van Ninh has ordered an investigation into the recent construction of toilets in several schools in the central province of Quang Ngai following media reports about their excessive cost.

Earlier Cao Khoa, the province mayor, had also ordered a probe by the local Inspectorate by June 18 at the latest, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported.

Many schools have allegedly received "large" and "unreasonable" amounts of funds for the restrooms from the education department, Khoa said in his written order to the inspectorate.

Tuoi Tre also reported that many of the restrooms were small and lacked doors and flush toilets despite costing as much as VND750 million (US$35,700) each.

It also quoted several contractors as saying the cost should have been much less.

Most of the funds came from the National Program of Clean Water and Environmental Hygiene initiated by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Following the media reports, the education department organized a press briefing last week where its deputy director, Do Van Phu, claimed that all the toilets were designed based on the education ministry's specifications.

Their costs were within the guidelines set by the Department of Construction, and his agency had been advised by consultants, he said, adding that they had also been approved by the province Department of Planning and Investment.

The education department also promised to investigate amid media skepticism about its objectivity.

In response to questions, Phu said violators would be punished without favor and the punishments would be made public.

Pham Tan Hoang, director of the local construction department, said projects under the national program are completely the responsibility of the education department, including the restrooms' design and quality.

The construction department does not have enough personnel to check all the works, he said.

Le Tan Hung, deputy director of the Department of Planning and Investment, said his department had refused to approve many costly works proposed by the education department.

It would inspect the works about which the media had raised doubts, he promised.

Since 2010 the education department has carried out 24 restrooms at a total cost of VND12.27 billion ($578,845), with each costing some VND510 million ($24,000) on average.

"˜Unbelievable'

Tuoi Tre reported that the issue of expensive toilets came to light during an inspection by the provincial People's Council, the local legislature, on June 5.

Most of the inspection team members found it "unbelievable" that a 29-square-meter restroom in Long Hiep Secondary School in Minh Long District cost nearly VND600 million ($28,300).

Vietnam's annual per capita income was $1,555 in 2012.

"I was shocked because a normal restroom should cost VND100 million ($4,700) at most," Truong Thi Xuan Hong, vice chairwoman of the legislature, said.

The restroom, completed last January, already has some of the boys' urinals leaking, while in the girls' toilet three of the stalls have no doors.

An unidentified contractor was quoted as saying that such restrooms cost no more than VND200 million ($9,400).

An unnamed official at the Minh Long District education division said a toilet approved at the district level normally has a budget of only VND50-70 million ($2,300-3,300).  

Speaking to Tuoi Tre, Vo Van Vinh, Long Hiep's principal, said the education department did all the jobs related to the restroom like design, estimating costs, and hiring the contractor.

But it had several problems, and the school management had asked the contractor to fix them.

"The school cannot be picky," he said, when asked about his opinion on the huge amount of money sunk into the restroom but not into any other facility in the deteriorating 13-year-old building, despite the school's request.

At Nghia Hiep Secondary School in Tu Nghia District, the restroom purportedly cost over VND710 million ($33,500), Tuoi Tre reported.

Principal Le Phi Hung said his school needs other facilities like teaching devices and rooms specific for different subjects, but its requests have yet to be considered.

The restroom at Nang An Elementary School in Mo Duc District was built only in January at a cost of VND721 million ($34,000), but its flush system has already broken down.

Pham Ngoc Kim, the school's security guard, said every day he has to fill a water tank for students to flush after using toilets.

Due to some defects in design, water gathers on the floor, he said, leading to the growth of moss and making it slippery, he said.

An unidentified contractor in Quang Ngai, after estimating the restroom, said it should have cost less than VND300 million ($14,000).

The contractor also estimated the cost of the toilet at Duc Thang Elementary School, also in Mo Duc District, at less than VND80 million ($3,700) since it is not equipped with modern flush toilets, only a trough against the wall for boys and a toilet seat made of bricks for girls, or faucets for washing the hands.

But the department has claimed it cost over VND560 million ($26,000).

Tuoi Tre also said several schools already with restrooms were also provided more of them.

Long Son Elementary School in Minh Long District, for instance, had one toilet but got two more in a span of two months.

Do Thi Lan, principal of Hanh Thinh Elementary School in Nghia Hanh District, also said her school was provided with another restroom at a cost of over VND593 million ($28,000) last year though classrooms need renovation.

Le Phan Minh Tuan, deputy head of the clean water and environmental hygiene project in neighboring Quang Nam Province, said his province built five school restrooms in 2010-11 for VND692 million ($32,600).

They range in size from 44 sq.m to 63 sq.m, he said.

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