28 Jan 2016

Charter school a waste of public money - PPTA

7:19 pm on 28 January 2016

The Whangaruru charter school closed today was a shameful waste of public money, the union representing secondary teachers says.

Northland charter school Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru.

Northland charter school Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

Education Minister Hekia Parata confirmed the closure of the charter school in Northland today, saying the challenges facing its board were too great.

PPTA president Angela Roberts said the union and Ministry advisors warned the government of all those challenges and risks - but were ignored.

She said state schools could have made good use of the millions spent to prop up a school that was never viable.

Ms Roberts said the 39 children who attended the ill-conceived charter school were the true victims of the venture, along with the taxpayer.

But the board that authorises charter schools said the school was a highly aspirational venture.

Partnership Schools Authorisation Board chair Catherine Isaac told RNZ the plan to help some of the most at-risk students in Northland had great merit, and the Trust proposing it was very plausible.

"I think another of the challenges they faced up there which was very significant was attracting high quality teachers to a remote area and we will certainly be looking to future applicants in similar situations to come up with very compelling and viable solutions to that issue."

Another $400,000 added to bill

The Ministry of Education updated the cost of the Whangaruru school from $4.8 million to $5.2 million dollars this afternoon.

It said the extra $400,000 was a payment it was obliged to make for the first quarter of this year, even though the school will not be open.

The money will be paid to the owners of the school, Nga Parirau Matauranga Trust, and the Ministry said only a portion of it will be recoverable.

It will also have to negotiate with the Trust over the coastal farm it bought for the school with its set-up grant from the government, and which it now owns.

Ms Parata's announcement today confirmed an interim decision made last year and meant the school will close on 7 March.

She said students displaced by the closure will be helped to continue their education elsewhere.

Five of the 39 students had already moved on, and ministry staff had been helping the remaining 34 and their families to look at their options, she said.

"But until I made my final decision, which I've announced today, it hasn't been possible to finalise those. But there are plans and options for each individual young person that the Ministry will set through with the board and with their whanau."

Path to closure

The path to closure began in February 2015, when the school was put on notice because of problems including poor student results and behaviour, and poor financial practices.

The Education Ministry told the government leadership was the school's most significant problem and it needed to quickly replace its leadership team with experienced staff.

It recommended the school be closed and said that could happen by May 2015. But it later advised that could result in some of the school's students dropping out of education altogether and advised that the school should remain open for the remainder of the year.

In October 2015, an audit said the school had improved its governance, management and finances, but student achievement had improved only a little and only for some students.

The government decided that was not good enough and made the interim decision to close the school in a decision confirmed today.

Speculation over future of property

The government has spent $4.8 million on Te Pumanawa o te Wairua. That includes a set-up payment of $1.38m, which the school used to purchase farmland and buildings.

The future of that property has been the subject of much speculation.

The school's contract and later revisions made no mention of returning assets to the government if the school should close.

However, Ms Parata said the Education Ministry would now begin negotiations with the trust to get back the land, or the $800,000 it paid for it.

Te Pumanawa o te Wairua had 36 students in 2015.

Green Party education spokesperson Catherine Delahunty said the children at the school had been failed by an experiment.

"The Minister of Education must not wash her hands of the children of Whangaruru. These kids were the unwitting victims of the charter school experiment and the minister must now promise all the resources that they need to ensure their education can be salvaged."

Ms Delahunty said the government had repeatedly over-ruled concerns about the school and had wasted money propping it up.

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