Country school’s community ‘deeply divided’

There has been a school at Totara, south of Oamaru, since 1883. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
There has been a school at Totara, south of Oamaru, since 1883. PHOTO: GERARD O’BRIEN
A tiny rural North Otago school that has served its community for 141 years is in turmoil. Reporter Jules Chin asks what is going on at Totara School.

The principal of Totara School is unable to manage pupil behaviour and is unprofessional, a group of parents concerned about the future of the school and the safety of their children say.

However, Totara School limited statutory manager (LSM) Cleave Hay said there were no pupil safety issues and "the concerns of an unhappy group are not justification for the removal of a school leader".

The Ministry of Education said to focus on the principal and opinions of the parent group regarding the school’s management only served to distract from what needed to be done to return the school to full self-management.

In the past year about 30 pupils had been withdrawn from the school by their parents, leaving 47 pupils at the school, three teachers have resigned and the entire board of trustees has quit.

While principal Sandra Spekreijse still runs the school, it is under statutory management and a commissioner is to be appointed.

The parent group approached the Otago Daily Times to share their concerns, saying they felt they had no other choice after making multiple unresolved complaints to the principal, board of trustees, the school’s limited statutory manager and the Ministry of Education since late last year.

They did not want to be identified because they feared reprisal from Mrs Spekreijse, they said.

They said they believed Mrs Spekreijse was unable to effectively lead the school.

Their concerns were myriad and included that she over-shared personal information with parents, exhibited favouritism, was non-teaching and was unable to deal with conflict or difficult situations.

They also feared for the safety of children at the school because they felt she was unable to manage behavioural issues in pupils.

They acknowledged the school community was "deeply divided", but questioned how staff who had resigned, an entire board of trustees and the parents of 25 to 30 children who had left the school could be wrong about the situation.

"We’ve had sleepless nights over this," one said.

"Leaving a school, you only leave when things are at rock bottom.

"It’s impossible for it to rebuild with Sandra at the helm. She needs to move on and let the community heal."

They said the statutory management process had been disappointing.

They thought issues would be addressed, but it had been a "non-event".

The community had "voted with their feet" and many were too scared to give the "real reason" for their departure, they said.

It has also emerged that in October last year union NZEI Te Riu Roa, on behalf of several staff at the school, sent a formal complaint to the school board chairman about "the conduct of the principal of Totara School toward most staff over time".

The concerns staff held included "ongoing lack of communication between the principal and staff, the withholding by the principal of certain information necessary for staff to undertake their roles, an absence of the principal at the workplace, a lack of leadership and timely decision making needed to support teaching and learning for tamariki, a sense of intimidation and manipulation, a breach of confidentiality of staff, parents and pupils resulting in a lack of trust and a sense of tension that makes the workplace a very unsafe environment to be working in".

They also asked for guidance on how staff could keep themselves safe at their workplace during the investigation.

The complaint was accompanied by a 20-plus page report.

The union did not respond to a question about whether their complaint was resolved.

Two teachers left the school last year and one at the end of term one this year.

The ODT has seen copies of many communications from parents to the former board, Mrs Spekreijse, Mr Hay and the ministry, including at least one formal complaint, outlining their concerns.

Mr Hay said Totara School was safe for pupils and the concerns of parents and teachers were being looked into when responding to the parent group’s claims.

He was aware a portion of the school community felt disaffected.

Some processes took time, and many could not be shared publicly, he said.

"This at times will cause frustration by those wanting to know more than they may be entitled to."

There were also families who had contacted him in support of the school and its leadership, he said.

The school had a procedure for raising legitimate concerns and complaints and that process would see any raised matters considered seriously and appropriately.

"There are no student safety issues at play and I can assure all parents/whānau that the principal and staff are committed to providing a full education in a safe and inclusive environment."

The role of a limited statutory manager or commissioner was, like a school board, to ensure there were robust policies and procedures to support the implementation of the school’s plans and ensure the pupils were always the primary focus of the school and the basis of decision making, he said.

"I am confident that Totara School has robust plans and processes in place to deliver a sound education for every student, and this has my full support."

When the group’s assertions were put to the Ministry of Education, Nancy Bell, Ministry of Education Hautū (Leader) Te Tai Runga (South) said it did not "condone the singling out of any staff member".

"The ongoing focus on individuals and the opinions of others regarding the school’s management only serves to distract from what needs to be done to return the school to full self-management as soon as practical.

"Totara School is working hard to address its current challenges while keeping their focus on their students and delivering quality teaching in a safe learning environment. We will support the school for as long as needed," she said.

Another parent contacted the ODT to say their family was having a positive experience with both the principal and teachers and they were unaware of any issues.

"I don’t want to be listening to someone complain about A, B, C or D. I just want to know that the children are safe and happy.

"I’ll do my part and contribute, but I’m not going to find out what’s been said and why are they saying this and making a big thing about it.

"I’m sick of the children knowing what’s happening or thinking they know what’s going on.

"I’d say it’s just generations of people there with their traditional views that aren’t accepting of management or the way things are being done," they said.

When told about the group’s worries, Mrs Spekreijse said she was concerned some people had expressed views about her performance and behaviour and referred queries to Mr Hay.

Ms Bell noted in the ministry’s most recent response to parents regarding Totara School and school staffing, if any parent had concerns they should directly raise them with Mr Hay for formal addressing and resolution.

"Also previously noted, Mr Hay is a very experienced practitioner who brings an external perspective and governance expertise."

School staff and NZEI Te Riu Roa declined to comment.