2 Sep 2020

James Shaw may get some reprieve if Green School funding treated as 'loan'

7:26 am on 2 September 2020

Analysis - James Shaw's ministerial colleagues have not exactly rushed to help him out after he delivered a massive 'mea culpa' over the funding decision for the private Green School.

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James Shaw yesterday apologised for "an error of judgement" over the funding of the private Green School in Taranaki. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The Greens' co-leader and government minister has fronted up and apologised to a long list of those outraged by his active support of the nearly $12 million grant, but still with no solution.

One may be on the horizon though - with the school telling RNZ it is open to much of the money it was promised being treated as a loan.

Chief executive of the Taranaki Green School, Chris Edwards, says it was never meant to be a grant.

"There was a small portion that was going to be a grant and the other elements were essentially loans."

But when asked to clarify whether it was now considered a grant or not, Edwards said: "I can't really answer that question, not because I'm dodging it, but because I'm not responsible for that application. But I do know that there are conversations going on now to see if we can use the funds in as creative a manner as possible so that they will benefit the community."

Edwards could not say whether the school's owners would be willing to give the money back but said "as it stands the vast majority will be [a loan]".

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and Shaw have had increasingly fractious public exchanges in recent months, and this week was no different.

Peters says this is a "mistake of bad fiscals, bad understanding of the marketplace, and worse still of a very, very uncertain applicant".

And he put the decision down to Shaw's lack of political experience: "You cannot go on making mistakes in this business ... we've stopped things that were a silly idea and promoted things that are good idea."

It was Shaw's "number one priority" to get the funding through, says Peters, and this is a case "where the blame stops with the person who's now saying he's sorry that he did that".

It's still not clear whether there is a contract in place between the Green School and Crown Infrastructure Partners Limited (CIP). The only reference to what the money would be spent on in Shaw's August announcement was on "a 'shovel-ready' project [to] enable Green School to expand its student roll from 120 students to 250 ... it is estimated that a roll of 250 students will contribute $43 million each year for the local economy".

"The support we are providing will help Green School to meet growing demand from parents all over New Zealand, and the rest of the world, wanting to enrol their children."

This has all happened under a $3 billion fund for 'shovel-ready' projects around the country, not only to build infrastructure but also to create jobs.

The exact make-up of the $11.7m announced for Green School is not known, with other contracts negotiated by CIP having a mix of loans and straight grants.

A major concern of Treasury in opposing the funding was it did not yet have the full education approvals needed for a private school.

Advice obtained by RNZ from around July said without full private school registration, it would be "inappropriate" to give Green School government money, but even then it opposed the grant.

Green School has provisional registration, says the advice, but it would it be still be some time before it was a fully registered private school, as Treasury says the "Education Review Office (ERO) is planning to visit the school in 2021, so if they are successful in receiving full registration this is unlikely until mid-2021".

Education Minister Chris Hipkins told Parliament he was not involved in signing off the grant, but did "have a conversation about the application with James Shaw towards the end of July and I gave him feedback that from an educational portfolio perspective the school would not be a priority for investment".

And he's distancing himself from the school itself saying he wouldn't send his own kids there.

Hipkins says parents make their own choices about removing their children from the state system: "Look, I wouldn't send my kids to a private school.''

Some private schools "may go through building projects before they've completely registered as a private school," he says, and from an educational viewpoint that's not unusual.

Nor is it unusual for Treasury to have "strongly held" views, Hipkins says.

"Private schools do what they want - they're private businesses.''

While they have to teach broadly to the New Zealand curriculum, they do have more freedom in that regard, he says.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson told the House 1900 applications were initially received and Crown Infrastructure Partners shortlisted that down to just over 800.

"Ministers were then responsible for refining that down further to the around 150 projects that have been put in place ... Minister Shaw is on record for his strong advocacy of the particular project in question here.''

Robertson says he does not see a backlash for Labour or New Zealand First as a result of the decision-making.

"I think everybody in the situation is clear that it was Minister Shaw's strong advocacy that saw the Green School (succeed), and he himself has acknowledged that.''

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the money committed to the Green School has not come at the expense of the more than $2 billion of infrastructure upgrades for schools across the country.

She says the government has been committed to bolstering the quality of public schooling infrastructure.

"This project is about job creation, it creates 200 jobs and that's why it was seen so favourably by the Crown infrastructure process.''

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