How does a school with the population of Eketāhuna, in Lower Hutt's wealthiest suburb, end up discombobulated by rotting classrooms?
Lucy, her last name withheld, a senior student at Hutt Valley High, blames the government.
"I have been let down," she said at a meeting in the school hall earlier this month which families called to seek answers from the Ministry of Education.
Lucy had just spent the first three days of term two working from home because her classrooms are a health risk.
"Help has come too late. It is horrendously overdue," she added.
Hutt Valley High's problems are national news. Labour MP Ginny Andersen of Hutt South is using it as an example of "chronic" underfunding of schools. This is made worse, others say, by a property funding model that confuses the responsibilities of tenants (school boards) and owner (the ministry).
Education Ministry officials are promising to put things right at Hutt Valley High and they're also promising to look into how it went wrong.
Board minutes, emails and reports released to RNZ by the school under the Official Information Act show that time was ticking while rooms rotted.
They show the ministry agreed to work that did not happen. The school appealed repeatedly for help and, at the same time, officials praised it for being well maintained and "in good shape".
In 2016, a fire shut down the technology block and exposed the whole fire alarm system as jumbled and risky. It took four years to sign a contract to fix it. The school faced having to pay $300,000-500,000 itself, but eventually the ministry covered the cost. Only in late 2020 did the burnt-out tech block rebuild get back on track, and only after the school took drastic action to plug a $2.2m funding gap.
That same year, it was agreed to rebuild C block and a master redevelopment plan was finished. The block remains central to the black mould crisis. The ministry in May 2021 promised to replace it and a told parents a master plan is "desirable" and began looking at it again.
In 2019, a roofing report initiated by the school said a dozen roofs needed $6m to fix. Property funding was fully taken up already, and the school did not get the special roof funding it thought was coming.
Over the next few years the roll is forecast to grow 10 percent or so to 17-1800, without increasing the 80 teaching spaces.
A few weeks ago, the ministry told Hutt High families:
"Planning for the future at the school is in its early stages."
Timeline of Hutt Valley High's woes
- 2015: In October, the board tells the ministry its five-year property funding model is "not adequate to arrest the decline of ministry assets leased by the board". The board opts to raise the annual donation noting it had "no choice but to increase the financial burden on parents as the ministry does not fund the school sufficiently under the current regime, notwithstanding that students are legally entitled to a free education".
- 2016: In November, the ministry agrees to rebuild the old concrete-block, uninsulated C Block and, in September, the school fundraises to pay for a $30,000 master plan to redevelop the ministry's property. The report describes buildings as "poor" and "hugely inadequate". It labels C block the "cold dead heart!"
- 2017: The replacement of C block is estimated to cost $11.7m.
- 2018: In June, the school and ministry discuss roofing problems. The school warns the $90,000 budgeted to fix five roofs "is likely to be woefully unrepresentative of actual costs". The school reluctantly agrees to pay to fix the roofs, but later the ministry agrees to. Officials say the school "has been well maintained, is in good shape and commended the board for that", according to board minutes.
- 2019: In July, the roof report costs replacing 90 percent of the roofs at $6m, versus ministry calculations that provide $2.2m for property capital works and upgrades for 2020-25. The roof report recommends air testing in 10 classroom blocks and both gyms because "longstanding" leaks present the risk of mould. The school gives the ministry the report to coincide with the five-year planning, but air testing does not take place. (The school and ministry have overlapping duties under health and safety laws to students and staff.)
- 2020: In July, the ministry moves to plug a budget blow-out on rebuilding the burnout tech block by raiding the 2020-25 property fund of $2.2m, for $1.8m. The school resists, fearing this will "leave other projects held up". It finally accedes, partly as it thinks the leaking roofs will get funded from elsewhere. The ministry acknowledges its communications have been "shoddy" and it has "not kept the school in the loop", according to board minutes. In November, consultants working on the 10-year property funding plan say C block is core but money keeps getting "diverted" to other priorities. They foresee repairing the block's roof in 2021.
- 2021: In March, the school, off its own bat, calls in air testers and finds mould in C block. Later tests find more mould in other blocks. In May, the school and ministry sit down with same architect who did the 2016 master plan, to revive the plan. At the school hall meeting, former board member Chris Nicholls tells families: "We commissioned the report. The ministry weren't interested." Ministry officials promise to "learn as much as possible from this".