Interior Minister Lee Hong-yuan wants to transform school campuses into residential communities by taking idle classrooms vacated because of dwindling student populations and converting them into social housing units.
The minister stressed that this was but an "initial idea" that he will discuss with the Ministry of Education as well as local governments because it would involve merging schools, rezoning school districts, swapping land and transferring property.
"We need to brainstorm" this issue, he said, noting that there will be "many discussions" before his idea can be turned into reality.
Below are excerpts of reports by a major Taiwanese newspaper on the issue:
The United Daily News:
Lee said he got the idea when he saw some elementary schools in the greater Taipei area, which used to teach over 10,000 pupils, now with many empty classrooms because the number of students had shrunk to mere hundreds as a result of lower birth rates in recent years.
"Campuses have green land and playgrounds that assure good quality living spaces. So I would suggest that we turn them into social housing units" to help solve the nation's housing problem.
He said his ministry has budgeted NT$3 billion (US$102 million) for Taipei and New Taipei cities to acquire land for five social housing projects.
But because of the high demand for social housing, Lee said the government cannot afford to buy all the land needed for such projects.
"Changing existing vacant classrooms into social housing units could be an efficient and cost-saving way to achieve the policy goal of social housing," he added.
Lee said that when he was public construction minister, he succeeded in turning a police dormitory in Yonghe, New Taipei into a youth housing complex and a tax office in Pingtung County in southern Taiwan into a youth hostel. Both were projects that were hailed as good examples of "reviving and reusing" idle buildings.
Lee said he understood that "location" factors into decisions on how to make good use of idle public offices or buildings. In northern Taiwan, they can be converted into social housing units that can be rented to less privileged young people. In southern Taiwan, where the need for social housing units is not as urgent, "open discussion should be held about how to use idle public buildings."
In Chung Hsing New Village, the site of the now-defunct Taiwan Provincial Government, there are many idle rooms and offices, he said, and many township office buildings are no longer in use following the merger of counties and cities into municipalities in late 2010.
"These local buildings can be put on our discussion list too," Lee said.
He said his ministry will set an example by examining how to make flexible use of idle offices left behind by the police and immigration authorities under the Ministry of the Interior.
EXAMPLES AND PLANS
There have already been successful examples of turning abolished schools into tourist attractions and day care centers for the elderly.
Guangming Elementary School in Yuchi Township was done away with four years ago, and township chief Chen Chin-lun told the story of his school "becoming illuminated" again. (Guangming means illuminated or illustrious in Chinese).
According to Chen, Ou Ching-hsiang, a former village chief in the township and an alumni of the school, did not want to see his former school and its 50-year history be erased from memory, so he approached influential figures to see if the school's gloomy fate could be averted.
He got a break when Tseng Kuo-chi, then the director of the Sun Moon Lake tourism office and one of those approached by Ou, suggested that his tourism office take the building over.
The idea became a reality when Tseng's office purchased the school from the township government for NT$8 million.
Beginning in September 2010, the office spent more than NT$30 million to remodel the school into a "travel and learning center" that offers canoe lessons and ecological tourism programs, among others.
These feature programs, part of the Sun Moon Lake tourism promotion effort, now attract nearly 1,000 visitors a month, and the revived school site is now part one of the highlights of Sun Moon Lake's tourism sector.
Wentian Elementary School in the county's Zhushan Township is another example of an abolished school being turned into a useful and meaningful institution.
The county government is converting the school, which was "abandoned" two years ago, into a day care center for senior citizens. Locals are hailing the government for the center, which is expected to begin operations next year.
"That's wonderful. These days, the elderly are not well taken care of because most of the young people are out of town for their jobs," said a farmer surnamed Chang.
Deputy Director Kuo Chin-chih of Kaohsiung's Department of Education said it may not be a good idea to change vacant schools into apartment units in the southern Taiwan city where housing prices are not a problem.
"Still, we can turn them into parks or other public places. For instance, we're planning to turn former Zuoying Junior High School into part of the park that currently features Lianchi Lake," Kuo said.
Yang Yung-hua, principal of Cheng Gong Junior High School in Tainan, said it might be a good idea to convert empty classrooms into life-learning centers or community colleges so local residents have a chance to enhance their intellectual lives.
But Taipei City councilwoman Hsu Shu-hua criticized Lee for proposing an "unworldly" idea, contending that the root cause of housing shortages in Taipei is the high price of housing units.
"He should think of some ways to bring down housing prices to reasonable levels rather than try to transform classrooms into rental units," she said.
She accused Lee of trying to "vie for land" with pre-school children, based on her belief that public kindergartens are much more urgently needed in the capital city than social housing.
"The government has promised to increase day care facilities for pre-school kids, as city-owned and publicly run day care centers currently take care of only 122 of the city's 50,000 children under age 2," Hsu said.
Hsieh Chih-wei, a parent whose two children are school age, opposes school mergers on safety grounds. "Just crossing one pedestrian crossing is already worrying enough. Does he (Lee) plan to assign his official car to send kids to school?"
Some teachers unions are also hesitant about Lee's proposal, arguing that education must not be sacrificed for the sake of housing policy.
"The opinions of parents and teachers must be honored before making a decision to abolish a school. We fear there will be examples of 'mergers for merger's sake,'" said Yang Yi-feng, chairman of the Taipei Teachers' Association. (April 15, 2012)
(By S.C. Chang)