9 Sep 2014

Charter school waste of money - union

7:19 pm on 9 September 2014

The union representing primary school teachers says the shambles surrounding a Northland charter school shows it has been a gross waste of taxpayers' money.

Hekia Parata.

Education Minister Hekia Parata. Photo: RNZ

Documents from the Education Review Office show Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru cost taxpayers $2.4 million in its first six months, but almost immediately a governor had to step in to address its failings. The school opened in February on a remote farm property south of Russell.

The Government spent $1.3 million on a coastal farm property for the school and is funding its 56 pupils and seven teachers at a rate of $1.5 million a year. Northland principals say that is about the same amount they are getting for low decile schools with 360 pupils.

The NZEI said today the Government has thrown $2.4 million away on a dysfunctional, ideological experiment when public schools are being starved of funding.

Ministry of Education documents show that the charter school struggled with student drug and alcohol use, absenteeism, staff resignations and tensions, poor planning and weak governance. It says the school has faced challenges, but has improved its performance.

Education Minister Hekia Parata also defended the school, telling Radio New Zealand's Checkpoint programme today the problems are being addressed and she is not giving up on it.

"We know this is a challenge, we've been working on that basis, we want this to be a success, and we want to be responsible both in terms of the kids themselves and the obligation to taxpayers and their funds. I'm very mindful that that is the responsibility we have in this case."

Ms Parata said a second report is being done on the school.

The charter school about a week before opening in February.

The charter school about a week before opening in February. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

School trust set to keep farm - principal

A Northland principal says the trust running the charter school looks set to keep the farm it is built on - even if the school fails.

Pat Newman, the president of the Tai Tokerau Principals' Federation, says Te Kura Hourua o Whangaruru has been funded at five times the rate of his low decile primary school in Whangarei.

Mr Newman said today that the charter school struggled to meet acceptable standards in teaching and governance but if it fails, the cost of the land would not necessarily come back to the taxpayer.

"I've had it confirmed and I had a very strong suspicion up till now that the trust using $1.379 million of Crown money owns the land. And if the school shuts, they still retain ownership."

Mr Newman said documents released under the Official Information Act show that the Ministry of Education initially felt that the Whangaruru school was not ready to open this year and the property should have been kept as a Crown asset.

Mr Newman said the Ministry of Education had in the past said it would expect to reclaim any assets should a charter school fail. However, sources close to the school had confirmed to him that title to the land was held not by the Crown, but by the trust that sponsors the kura.

Staff tensions and problems from start

Pat Newman says ministry-appointed governance facilitator Chris Saunders was from the start forced to take a hands-on role at Whangaruru, spending several hours a day there at least four times a week, looking after both governance and management.

Documents released under the Official Information Act showed issues of concern to the ministry at that point were staff tensions and resignations, dysfunctional relationships, ad hoc decisions in teaching programmes, absenteeism and students' behaviour, including drug-use.

Mr Saunders was later able to step back into his original governance role after a local Child, Youth and Family manager was seconded to the job of executive principal.

Mr Newman said the ministry paid the school $1.5 million a year for 56 pupils and seven teachers. That worked out at nearly $27,000 a pupil - compared to about $6000 a head for the children at his decile one state school in Whangarei.

"I'm absolutely appalled the children attending that school are being funded at about 500 percent more than a child attending my school or similar state schools."

Mr Newman said his school receives about $6000 per pupil, meaning they are undervalued compared to the charter school.

"If I was funded (that much), I would be running programmes that wouldn't be dysfunctional, I would have trained teachers actually running them as well, and we would be successful."

Mr Newman said he and other principals could only dream about how they would improve life and learning for many children if they had similar funding to the amount used to prop up Whangaruru.

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