'Secretive' ministry criticised

An investigation by the Ombudsman has slammed the Ministry of Education for not being transparent enough about its processes for establishing charter schools in New Zealand.

An Official Information Act request was made by the Otago Daily Times in March, asking for information about the number of people in Otago and Southland who had expressed an interest in establishing a charter school in their area.

Ministry of Education schooling policy group manager Ben O'Meara said the request had been considered under the Act (1982), but the information had been withheld under section 9(2)(j). He said it was withheld to allow ''a minister of the Crown or any department holding the information, to carry out negotiations without prejudice or disadvantage''.

''There do not appear to be any overriding public interest reasons that support the release of the information withheld,'' he said.

Otago principals questioned why the ministry was being so ''secretive'' about the amount of interest being registered in establishing charter schools in the southern region.

The Otago Daily Times, along with the New Zealand Educational Institute and other media organisations, sent letters of complaint to the Ombudsman about the ministry's refusal to release the information.

The Office of the Ombudsman responded this week to NZEI, saying it disagreed with the ministry and found there was an urgent need for more transparency.

Ombudsman Prof Ron Paterson found the ministry had no good reason for refusing to release the names of organisations expressing an interest in setting up a charter school.

In its submission to the Ombudsman, the ministry claimed there was no strong public interest in the release of the information at this stage in the process.

The ministry was concerned those who had expressed an interest would be lobbied by charter school opponents and would receive news media inquiries.

There was no necessity for applicants to submit an initial expression of interest therefore those who did would be at a disadvantage, the ministry said.

The Ombudsman's report was also critical of Partnership Schools Authorisation Board chairwoman Catherine Isaac, who had earlier assured two organisations their identities would remain confidential.

NZEI president Judith Nowotarski said the ministry and charter school proponents needed to be reminded there was strong and valid public interest in the issue, with taxpayer's money and the health of the public education system at stake.

''We strongly believe it is important to have the discussion and debate before the final decisions were made.

''But it would appear that the ministry preferred to keep public debate and information to as minimum [a] level as possible.''

While the Ombudsman's findings may be a win for openness and transparency in this case, she said the secrecy surrounding charter schools would continue because they would not be subject to the Official Information Act, despite being publicly funded.

The ministry told the Ombudsman it planned to publish the names of the organisations on July 31 on its website.

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