The estimates of government savings from school closures during 2006-2008 presented to the Estimates Committee of the ACT Legislative Assembly recently are outdated, misleading and not believable.
The Minister for Education, Andrew Barr, has treated the Estimates process with contempt by providing savings estimates made in 2006 before any school closures occurred and by failing to take account of ongoing costs of the closures.
The Minister failed to provide a current estimate of the savings from school closures. He represented the savings estimates published in 2006 as if they were current savings. The estimated savings for each school in 2008-09 are exactly the same down to the exact dollar amount as they were estimated in 2006.
It is inconceivable that the actual savings in 2008-09 are exactly as estimated in 2006. It is clear that the Minister and his Department do not have a clue as to what the actual savings are from closing schools. All they can do in response to questions is to keep repeating the estimates that were made before any closures occurred.
They claim the estimated savings are actual savings because that amount of funding was removed from the Department’s budget. However, this is just an arbitrary adjustment. It failed to take account of several one-off and ongoing costs to both the Department of Education and other government agencies from closing schools.
The estimate of savings to the Department of Education from closing schools was based on savings in staff salaries and School Based Management payments. There are several reasons to consider that this savings figure was over-estimated.
It excluded significant one-off costs, including for the duplication of special education facilities in other schools, purchase of new demountable classrooms and/or the transfer and installation of existing demountables, and refurbishment works in schools that received additional students.
The enrolment component of school-based management funds appeared to be too low as many of the items in school operating costs are enrolment-related. There are also questions about the salary savings estimates. The estimate also failed to include the total cost of relocating Government offices and other tenants as a result of school closures.
The savings estimates also fail to take account of several one-off and ongoing costs to other Government agencies. The large part of these additional costs was likely incurred by the Department of the Territory and Municipal Services.
The major additional costs include the provision of additional bus services and increased building maintenance and security costs. None of these ongoing costs have been factored into the savings estimates. There may also have been some additional costs associated with traffic safety measures.
In addition, the Government has ploughed millions of dollars into upgrading many former school sites and building new community facilities. These expenditures would not have occurred if the schools had not been closed. They should be set against the so-called savings from closing schools.
The ACT Government has failed to provide a whole-of-government estimate of the savings from closing schools. Indeed, it is possible the Government has incurred a net cost from closing schools.
At present, we cannot be sure either way because the Government refuses to provide a full accounting. In addition, additional costs were imposed on families and communities which have never been assessed.
The ACT Auditor-General should call the Minister to account and launch an immediate audit of the whole-of-government savings achieved from school closures as recommended by the Estimates Committee back in 2007.