The Folly of ACT School Closures Revealed

Education Minister Joy Burch has exposed the folly of the 2006 school closures as an expensive and short-sighted mistake. The loss of spare capacity has now seen new classrooms built in schools only kilometres from closed schools, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.

Duffy is only a few kilometres away from the now-closed Weston Creek and Rivett primary schools. Macgregor Primary School and the two new private schools are not far from the now-closed Flynn Primary School.

In the Northwest Belconnen region alone, the combined increase in capacity of the three schools (Macgregor expansion and the two new private schools) is estimated at:
• Charnwood (Brindabella College): 194 students enrolled by 2018, increasing to 650 K-12 students
• Macgregor Primary School: an extra 250 students enrolled by 2016 (to reach a total of 700 students)
• Spence (At-Taqwa Islamic School): 800 students enrolled by 2022.

If the two private schools eventually proceed (and neither has been given the green light yet), the combined effect will be to add another 1700 student places to the Northwest Belconnen region. (Potential enrolment growth from Dunlop and Macgregor West would already have been already included in the 2006 planning.)
All-in-all, the 2006 school closures have cost the government tens of millions of dollars, and the community even more in terms of lost services and social capital.

To save a $21.3 million over four years for 23 schools, the ACT Government has spent more than $15 million on new classrooms and on refurbishing existing ones to accommodate new students. And that doesn’t even start to count the cost of new classrooms and schools in the private sector. The huge capital investment that followed, including two new P-10 schools and IT upgrades, promised as sweeteners to surviving schools, were a welcome investment in the sector, but according to government claims, were not dependent on closing schools.

The government has also borne the cost of refurbishing the closed schools for other uses. This has so far added up to around $40 million. Another $1.1 million dollars was spent on “community consultation” after the schools were closed, much of it on consultants. While community facilities are something the community lobbied hard for in 2007, much of this $40 million could have been avoided as many of the closed schools were engaged and active in their local communities, with some doubling up as community facilities in their own right. Some now-closed schools had even proposed more community use as a cost-free, and possibly revenue-raising, alternative to closing their schools. Just keeping Flynn Primary School open could have reduced that bill to less than $30 million because of the cost of protecting the heritage values of the site while adapting it wholesale for other uses.

In contrast, Joy Burch’s own announcements this week show that it has cost about $2 million for an “older school upgrade”. If this had been spent on each of the 23 schools instead of closing them, the total cost to government would have been around $46 million, without the angst and social costs. The actual cost would most likely have been lower: condition assessments for 2006 show that most schools needed an average of around $0.5 million to bring them up to “normal” standard, leading to a total refurbishment cost of around $12 or $13 million.

The total cost of not closing schools could have been around $35 million—significantly less than the $55-or-so million spent so far to close them and keep them closed. And these are just the direct, easily documented costs to government.

It is good news that Ms Burch places a value on neighbourhood schools that her predecessor, Andrew Barr, never understood. Her proud announcement of up to 300 more places at Macgregor Primary School to meet the growing demand from the local area is to be applauded. It is a shame, however, that she does not yet have the courage to make the obvious move and at least apologise for her government’s mistakes, if not re-open closed primary schools rather than throwing yet more money at keeping them closed.

Sarah James

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