Russell under fire over schools email

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EDUCATION minister Mike Russell has been accused of interfering in Argyll and Bute Council's controversial school closure programme.

In an email sent from his MSP's account on November 18, Mr Russell warned the SNP's nine Argyll and Bute councillors that the authority's proposal to shut 25 schools would create "very severe problems which could be very destructive to our reputation and prospects".

Mr Russell, who stated in the message to Oban SNP councillor Donald MacDonald that he was writing in his capacity as the party's Argyll and Bute candidate in May's Holyrood election, talked of being "somewhat surprised that my advice appears to have been totally ignored and that council officials have remained obdurate and have driven the policy."

Mr Russell also said he knew at least one council official had been briefing against him in the local press, and instructing head teachers not to co-operate with him.

Mr Russell, who lives in Glendaruel and is currently a regional list MSP for the south of Scotland, had previously said he would not be getting involved in the issue; his wife, Cathleen, was until November head teacher of Toward Primary, one of the schools threatened with closure under the council's plans to save an annual 2 million from its education budget.

In his email to Cllr MacDonald, Mr Russell called for an emergency meeting of the SNP constituency party to discuss the issue in advance of the council's November 25 vote on whether to put the school proposals out to consultation.

"My strong view," Mr Russell wrote, "is that if the council leader will not withdraw the proposals we should vote against them and leave the coalition.

"There is nothing to be gained by staying except political damage in the short term and educational, economic and social damage to a whole range of our vital rural communities in the long term."

The council's SNP group resigned from their coalition with the Alliance of Independent Councillors in the days after the meeting.

Mr Russell also said he had discussed with the council's then education spokesperson, Bute SNP councillor Isobel Strong, a list of eight or nine threatened closures which "could be taken through with minimum difficulty".

Argyll and Bute's Liberal Democrat MP Alan Reid said: "This is unwarranted interference by the Scottish Government in council business. Mr Russell must tell us which schools the Scottish Government thinks should close and which council officials they think are 'obdurate'.

"The SNP government has cut Argyll and Bute Council's grant by more than any other council in Scotland. Instead of telling the council to close eight or nine schools, Mr Russell should be fighting for a decent grant settlement.

"It's high time he resigned over the way his government is treating Argyll and Bute."

Mr Russell told The Buteman on Monday that he had asked council leader Dick Walsh to investigate the leak of the confidential email, and that he understood Cllr MacDonald had done the same.

"The exchange is perfectly proper," he said, "and clearly in response to an enquiry about a matter of importance.

"The fabricated nonsense from the Liberals, and indeed the whole leak, is designed to deflect attention from tomorrow's special meeting of the council, at which the SNP group will try and have the school closure proposals over-turned."

An aide to Mr Russell said the minister would have no role in any decision on school closures in the area because of his previously declared interest.