Consultations on Future Uses of Closed School Sites

The Minister for Territories and Municipal Services, John Hargreaves, has announced a two-stage community consultation process on the future use of schools and pre-schools closed at the end of last year.

Primary schools in Flynn, Hall, Chifley (Melrose), Mt. Neighbour, Rivett, Tharwa and Weston closed at the end of 2006. Also included in the consultation process are two former primary school sites in Downer and North Curtin.

Details of the consultation process

An independent consultant will be engaged by the ACT Government to seek community views on potential future uses that could be made of all closed schools. This stage of the consultation will seek input on four suggestion put forward for discussion by the Government and will also seek suggestions from the community on other possible additional uses.

Stage 2 of the consultation will seek community views on which of the potential uses identified in Stage 1 would best utilised for each particular site.

Stage 1 will take approximately 2 months during July-August. In this period, community forums will be held in Belconnen, Woden/Weston, Tuggeranong and Hall and Tharwa villages. Stage 2 will occur over 3 months following Stage 1.

The consultant’s report shall be delivered to the Government towards the end of the year and Cabinet will make its decision in January or February 2008. The terms of reference for the consultancy are still to be developed.

The four generic uses to be discussed in Stage 1 are:

  • School buildings fully retained with unleased land added to the urban open space network (including the school oval);
  • School buildings fully retained with partial site development within current land use and unleased land added to the urban open space network;
  • School buildings partially retained, with partial site development for other uses and unleased land added to the urban open space network; and
  • Complete site re-development.

The consultation about the Mt. Neighbour and Rivett sites will occur in Stage 1 and not Stage 2 because the Government’s condition audit has found that the condition of these buildings is too poor to be retained for community use. As a result, it is likely that these sites will be sold.

The Minister also stated that the Government plans to retain the equivalent of four school buildings across Belconnen, Woden/Weston and Tuggeranong to provide lease space for existing community groups and those seeking to lease new space.

Problems with consultation process

The consultation process is welcomed by Save Our Schools. It should provide opportunities for communities to have their say in how the buildings and grounds will be used in future. Communities should take advantage of this opportunity and make their views known.

However, it remains to be seen how genuine and effective the process will be. The ACT Government has a lamentable record in community consultation. Too often, consultation processes are just a formal process that the Government has to go through in order to arrive at pre-determined decisions. Too often, community consultation by the Stanhope Government has been a charade. Many in the community no longer trust the Government’s consultation processes and do not believe that they reflect community concerns and aspirations.

There are several issues of concern about the process announced by the Minister. These are:

  • The process is not fully transparent;
  • The Minister stated that all possible options will be considered, but ruled out the option of re-opening closed schools at some future date;
  • The Minister failed to clarify whether a cost-benefit analysis of options will be carried out for each site as required under the Government’s surplus property guidelines.
  • Lack of full transparency*

The consultation process will not be fully transparent because the consultant’s report will not be available for public scrutiny and comment before Cabinet makes a decision on the sites. The Minister for Territories stated in his press conference that the consultant’s report would be given to the Government and would be a Cabinet in-confidence document.

The Minister stated that he expected that the report would be made public after Cabinet makes its decisions. However, this is not acceptable. It denies the community an opportunity to examine the recommendations of the consultant, correct any errors of fact, challenge any biases or unwarranted assumptions or to generally comment on the quality of the report.

The community will not know how adequately its views were taken into account until after the Government has made its decision.

Re-opening schools ruled out

Minister Hargreaves gave assurances at the press conference that all options would be considered for future use of the closed sites. This would include the four options for discussion put forward by the Government and any options raised by the community. He then immediately contradicted this assurance by stating that the Government would not re-open any site as a school.

There are real signs of urban renewal in many older suburbs in Canberra. Figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last year show that new births and fertility rates are increasing in suburbs where schools have closed. For example, the fertility rates for Flynn and Chifley (Melrose PS) are 2.29 and 2.22 respectively, compared to the average for the ACT of 1.63. The number of births in Chifley increased from 25 in 2000 to 38 in 2005, an increase of over 50 per cent while births in Flynn increased from 48 to 62, an increase of nearly 30 per cent. Births also increased by over 30 per cent in Rivett and Weston.

If this trend continues, some of the closed sites may be required again to avoid overcrowding in existing schools. It is deplorable that the Minister has pre-empted the community consultation by ruling out this option.

The Minister also made explicit the Government’s rejection of the concept of the neighbourhood school as a key feature of public education in the ACT. He stated that it is Government policy that not every neighbourhood will have a local school.

Cost-benefit analysis of options for sites

It appears that the Government may not meet its own regulatory requirements governing the how surplus property use is to be evaluated. The Government’s surplus property guidelines state that a cost-benefit analysis must be prepared for each property identified as potentially surplus.

Save Our Schools questioned the Minister at his press conference as to whether these cost-benefit studies would be undertaken as part of the consultation process or whether it would be done as a separate process. The Minister refused to state that these analyses would be done.

Sale of Mt. Neighbour and Rivett schools

The Minister stated that Mt. Neighbour and Rivett schools have been found to be structurally unsound and in such poor condition that they will not be retained for community use. This means that they are likely to be sold.

There are reasons to question this decision.

First, both schools were deemed suitable to house young children for many years, but now, six months after they were closed they are suddenly found to have serious structural and other defects. The Department of Education regularly carries out building inspections and assesses building safety and has never publicly suggested that the buildings were unsuitable or dangerous to house young children.

Second, the Notice of Decision that Mt. Neighbour should close does not include the poor state of the building as a reason to close the school. The Minister for Education’s Notice runs to 17 pages and not once does it refer to the buildings as being defective, run-down or dangerous. The Notice of Decision for Rivett has not been made available to Save Our Schools, so it is not possible to determine whether the state of the building was a factor in the decision to close the school.

The Government should publish the condition audits carried out on the closed schools by the Department of Territory and Municipal Services and the most recent building inspection reports carried on those schools by the Properties Section of the Department of Education.

Trevor Cobbold

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