The great school sell-off: schools closed for the land

The battle over schools continues with a revelation that the Stanhope Government closed schools according to their capacity to earn a quick dollar from real estate sales.

Documents with information about land and building values contained ‘advice or recommendations recorded in relation to deliberations and advice to the Executive regarding budgetary matters affecting the 2020 proposals’, according to the findings of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) in relation to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request for documents related to the 2006 school closures.

These findings contradict claims that ‘There has been no factoring in of any sale of buildings within the package …’ by Minister for Education Andrew Barr on several occasions, such as a Stateline Interview (09/06/06), and also as reported in the Canberra Times (09/06/06; 28/06/2006). Also proved false are claims that the documents should not be released because they were ‘outside the scope of the request’ (i.e. relevant).

Other FOI documents contain enough other indications that revenue from land sales was a significant factor, even to the point of deciding which schools to close. They include a 1998 auditor’s discussion of the ‘significant real estate values’ of 12 preschools, with suggestions that the ‘option of closing these preschools, and marketing the real estate, should be examined’.

Interestingly, the report identified that Flynn Preschool was a candidate for closure because of its low used-capacity and high real estate value, even though the preschool in the next suburb had a slightly lower used-capacity. The clear interpretation is that the difference was the value of the land because other factors were not discussed in that context. This progressed to closing Flynn Primary School in 2006.

It is widely believed that the late-2007 round of consultation over the future use of school sites (the ‘Purdon process’) was established to try to gain a mandate from the community to realise the prospective revenue and sell school sites. Certainly this view is supported by the terms of reference, which include a requirement to: ‘Deliver a level of return to the Territory to help meet other fiscal needs’, despite a budget surplus of more than $200 million in that year.

The final Purdon report recommended land sales that would reap $94 million for the government, but to Purdon’s credit, the strong community opposition to the recommendation was also reported.

The recommendations came as no surprise to communities who had been told by TaMS Property Group in early 2007, within months of their schools being closed, that most, if not all schools would be demolished. Small, neighbourhood halls were to be offered as a consolation prize to an unknown number of ‘lucky’ communities.

That the government has not realised this goal, nor the revenue from selling closed schools, is a testament to the strength of communities, with the most recent round of consultation in 2008 (the GHD consultation) confirming the community’s opposition to selling sites.

Just before the 2008 election, the Stanhope Government offered a plan to retain many closed school sites. However, a close read of the proposal reveals the possibility of land sales from pockets of open space at some sites.

With the new-look Assembly, there is a hope that a Greens’ election promise to retain all school sites in public ownership will carry some influence. But it might be an uphill battle for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the previous Labor government refused to consider retaining all the school sites. Some, such as the Mt Neighbour and Rivett sites, were only ever considered for demolition and sale because of their allegedly poor condition, despite the documentary evidence to the contrary. The Minister has misled the Assembly on this point.

Secondly, other sites are proposed for partial sale.

Thirdly, the future of Flynn Primary School is still undecided because the government chose not to make any decisions with a Supreme Court Appeal and a heritage application pending. (Although a decision to retain the site could have been announced.) Suspicions were heightened by the ACT Government’s removal (and later forced restoration) of a National Memorial to John Flynn on the site and news of plans to conduct anti-terrorism training exercises. The Flynn community believes this was an admission of the plan to demolish and sell-off Flynn at the earliest opportunity.

These sites must all be removed from the ‘for sale’ list so the government can work cooperatively with communities on determining a locally suitable community use for these public assets. Promises to retain other sites and parts of sites must be kept.

Some schools might be opened because of the social need for a local school and community facility. Others might be retained as community centres. Either way, the community is hoping that the new Assembly will be willing to manage these facilities with the community for the benefit of the community.

Sadly, the pressure to sell sites is likely to be on again, with Treasury’s latest discovery that the ACT might be facing a budget deficit, possibly of the same magnitude so wrongly forecast in 2006.

Sarah James

The reason this story is being written only now, almost two years after many schools closed their doors, is that the Government has been slow to act, releasing some documents only this year—for FOI requests made in June and December 2006.

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