Saturday, 28 February 2015

Closing schools and raising cash! ( Thanks to Freedom of Information legislation)

Vacant Victorian schools are being sold to meet a $225 million sales target, which has been dramatically increased in recent years.

As part of an aggressive push to fund the Napthine government's infrastructure program, the target was increased sevenfold from $32 million in 2009/2010 to the current target. 

The former state government ordered the Education Department to ramp up its asset sales, despite being warned in a confidential briefing that Victoria's state school population was expected to grow by 37,000 students by 2021.

The sales targets are meant to be achieved over a four-year term, not annually. While the final tally of education land sold under the previous government is unclear, dozens of former schools across the state went under the hammer. The department exceeded its target at the end of the 2013/14 financial year, reaping $142.2 million from the sale of assets.

 A letter from former assistant treasurer Gordon Rich-Phillips to former education minister Martin Dixon said the sale of surplus land was good for the state's finances as well as "freeing up capital to fund the government's infrastructure program" – only half of the sale proceeds are returned to the Education Department. 

The push was revealed in freedom of information documents obtained by Our Children Our Schools, an alliance of public education community campaigns, which described the sale of schools as "short-sighted".  

Our Children Our Schools spokeswoman Sonja Terpstra said she was concerned decisions about the future of schools were being driven by sales targets.

 "If the impetus is to cash in assets rather than proper provisioning, something is quite wrong.  The government will always be playing catch-up when provisioning for public schools if this is the case, and our kids are caught in the crossfire by being crammed into overcrowded schools and classrooms."

She also raised concerns about the government selling school sites to councils, who then sold them to developers for large profits. She referred to the old Bellfield Primary School in Ivanhoe, which was sold to Banyule council for $8.66 million and then sold to developer Stockland for $22.1 million.

The Grattan Institute's Dr Peter Goss said governments should be "very careful" about selling school assets or land that may be needed in the future due to rapid student growth.

"Especially given that it would probably be more expensive to reacquire it. Planning is a long-term game – a child born today would be starting primary school in 2020 and won't finish VCE until 2032."

A letter from former assistant treasurer Gordon Rich-Phillips to former Education Minister Martin Dixon said the sale of surplus land was good for the state's finances as well as "freeing up capital to fund the government's infrastructure program".

The Andrews government said it was reviewing the former government's "land sales and acquisitions framework" and developing a new one.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister James Merlino said the Andrews government would regularly monitor residential growth, demographic changes and enrolment trends to ensure demand for schools was properly planned for and accommodated.  He said the government would spend $530 million rebuilding schools, including new schools in some of Victoria's fastest-growing areas.

Opposition education spokesman Nick Wakeling defended the sale of disused school sites, saying they helped fund new schools in areas of need. Abandoning the sale of disused buildings could result in vandalism and cost taxpayers, he said.

Australian Education Union Victorian branch president Meredith Peace said disused schools should stay in the education portfolio. But she said if sold, the proceeds should be invested into education infrastructure.

I wonder what is being done with the old Learmonth and Windermere school sites? Those 2 schools, last time I heard were 'unstaffed'. Not sure what that means exactly?

There was a story and editorial in last week's Weekly Times implying that DET has been closing schools and not letting school councils make that decision ( Which has been policy for successive governments for 15 years.) I think sometimes there is a disconnect between governments and DET. Does beauracracy have a secret policy at a central or even regional level to close small schools? I believe there was school council consensus to close Windermere and Learmonth but DET at a regional level has never discussed in an open forum such as a regional directors meeting why the schools had to close and what being 'unstaffed' means. ( Of course in the old days unstaffed schools were not uncommon. My old school, Mount Wallace was left unstaffed through most of World War Two and reopened after the war. Somehow I don't think anyone anticipates these unstaffed schools ever reopening)In a previous post I published photos of Windermere PS but all that was left was the old building and a ramp leading to a BER building which has been removed, I believe to Beaufort. I also believe that it was removed unceremoniously. (The ugly facts about that are heresay) I haven't been to Learmonth since it 'closed'. 

These questions need to be answered and I'm glad to see The Weekly Times is following this up. There is no doubt that we have endured 4 years of inertia in education under the previous government and pressure put on from the Treasury to sell off 'surplus' land has been released through freedom of information which is of great concern and reminds me of the Kennett governments great school sell-off ( Which was a great financial success for ex- premier Bailleau. Mmmmm I wonder if anyone in particular has financially benefitted from $200 million plus sale of school land under the former government?)

We should not of course lose site of the big picture issue here ( I wonder if the Weekly Times will make this a crusade?) which is the yawning disparity in opportunity and performance of rural and regional students compared with those in metropolitan areas. the Auditor Generals report on this , released in April was damning on, in particular the last government and DET! The gap between rural and city kids is widening and a whole of government approach to this crises is required.( I have posted previously about the report and about the previous government and DET's lacklustre response to it) I have decided to take this up when I have the opportunity with DET ( My end of cycle review conference will be my next opportunity to do this) and my local members, one of whom is the new Agriculture Minister.

Below is the editorial from the Weekly Times

VICTORIA’s small rural towns risk falling apart without their schools.

Last week the Education Department confirmed it would “de-staff” Walpeup Primary School in Victoria’s Mallee, a school that has been operating for 102 years.

Walpeup’s six students will be forced to find a new school — the two closest are 20km and 30km away.

Other rural communities fear they could be next.

There were 18 schools in rural Victoria with 10 or fewer students last year.

School councils say, to their knowledge, decisions to de-staff or close small schools are made by school councils and not the department.

De-staffing small rural schools is a sneaky way for the department to close schools.

Without a functioning school, small towns cannot attract young families and their population numbers do not increase, so de-staffed schools never reopen.

Eight small schools in rural Victoria have closed in the past five years and another three schools have been de-staffed.

None have reopened.

The small towns of Stanley in the North East and Dargo in Gippsland have seen first-hand how a town crumbles when schools are de-staffed.

Small businesses struggle and houses can’t be sold.

The decision to de-staff or close a small school should be left up to the school council.

And there needs to be one clear and consistent policy to close small schools.

School with one or two families should have the same opportunities as schools with five or six families.

The State Government needs to offer small schools far more support because without them rural Victoria will suffer.

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