Govt cuts put school upgrades in doubt

The Ministry of Education has told James Hargest College principal Mike Newell the school’s...
The Ministry of Education has told James Hargest College principal Mike Newell the school’s building and maintenance plans have been put on hold and staff and pupils will have to put up with leaking roofs and collapsed ceilings until the ministry can approve funding for the rebuild. PHOTO: TONI MCDONALD
New classrooms at Invercargill’s James Hargest College are in doubt amid cost-cutting and reprioritisation by central government.

Principal Mike Newell said being told they would have to wait longer for funding to replace leaking and unsafe buildings was not the news they wanted to hear.

Some of the school’s buildings still in use were built in 1958.

A new master upgrade plan included a new 2-storey, 16-classroom block on the west end of the campus, expected to cost up to $24 million.

It would be one of up to four buildings to be built over the next 15 years.

The rooms are some of more than 100 new classroom builds in doubt around the country in a cost-cutting exercise that has already forced the secretary of education to apologise, following the minister’s intervention.

The Ministry of Education yesterday confirmed to RNZ it had paused major projects at 20 primary schools and colleges due to rising costs, changing roll growth forecasts or the reprioritisation of scarce funds.

About 300 new classrooms for 6600 children were promised in last year’s Budget.

But now 63 rooms at nine Auckland schools and 52 elsewhere, plus two whole teaching blocks, have been placed in limbo.

Mr Newell said the problems at James Hargest were bad enough now.

The problems in the science department’s chemical storage room were so significant staff did not want to switch the light on.

One pupil was even doused with water and debris after a water-laden ceiling collapsed on them.

Pupils were also forced to relocate desks to keep dry when it was raining and another building now had mould detectors installed.

The school had been told it would have to wait to see if the ministry’s next mid-year funding round would produce the crucial funding to replace the badly leaking campus buildings, Mr Newell said.

He believed delaying construction was not a great option as costs would only increase with time.

"So we’re just not interested in trying to do half a job because it’s going to cost more next time to do the other half of the job ..."

Ministry infrastructure and digital acting leader Stuart Wakefield said funding had been made available to the school for roofing repairs, and he encouraged the school to contact the ministry if they had concerns.

"The school is one of those impacted by project costs being significantly above the allocated budget."

Since September last year, several projects had been paused to allow the ministry to "explore more cost-effective options", Mr Wakefield said.

Other projects had also been paused to determine "relative priority to other investments to make sure we are making the right investment at the right school and at the right time to maximise the benefit of our investments for all schools".

"We will be working with these schools to refine the planned investment, determine when any investment should now progress and plan any immediate works to respond to the needs of the school," Mr Wakefield said.

Mr Newell said the college’s primary maintenance programme had also been put on hold by the funding freeze.

"We’re just chasing our tail.

"We’ve spent $180,000 on roofs that are leaking and we still haven’t fixed the leaks and these buildings.

"So we’re putting good money into buildings that are going to be pulled down."

He believed parents had the right to expect when their children turned up to school, pupils would be in warm and dry classrooms.

But the heating systems also needed to be updated and buildings insulated.

He hoped the ministry would recognise the serious state the school was in and allocate more funding than they had previously considered.

Minister Erica Stanford blamed the previous government and officials.

"It has become clear to me that there is a pattern of raised expectations among schools, a failure to deliver on these expectations, teamed with inadequate communication between the ministry and schools," she told RNZ on Thursday.

"I have spent the last three months since coming into office determining the size and scale of the problem that has been left to this government and working at pace to find a solution."