With school buildings crumbling around students and teachers, the Government is suggesting it may be time to take away the responsibility of maintaining them from school boards. But will more ministry oversight be a good thing? Shane Cowlishaw reports.

At Ridgway primary school, nestled on top of a Wellington hill, the buildings are rotting.

Step on some of the floors and your feet sink into the spongy wood.

Some parts, including teacher resource areas, are closed due to dampness and mould.

Dust, blown into the school by the city’s high octane winds, make your nose itch when you walk inside. For some teachers it’s too much, their asthma leading them to call in sick.

Currently, the school’s youngest kids are facing two terms of trudging outside to a portable trailer toilet block.

Their normal toilets are finally being rebuilt after the roof developed leaks that caused puddles to pool on the ground in heavy rain.

Kathryn Smith, Ridgway’s principal, says it was not until the school told the Ministry of Education it was considering advising parents to come and collect their children because of a health hazard that the work began.

But the toilets are only beginning.

The school has been waiting for five years for the replacement of its relocatable classrooms and the refurbishment of its main block.

In 2013, the ministry told the school’s Board of Trustees that so much work was needed it would take over.

As the years dragged on, meetings with officials grew increasingly frustrating and staff morale plummeted.

Parents also became upset at the state of the school’s infrastructure, with board chairman Richard Ngati lamenting that attracting new students and teachers had become difficult.

“I think it’s got to a point where we as a board, as a school, as teachers and as parents have gone ‘that’s just not good enough’.”

Ridgway School principal Kathryn Smith says dealing with the Ministry of Education has been a frustrating experience. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

After enquiries from Newsroom, and a string of angry letters from parents, the ministry told the school last week that its prefab classrooms would be demolished and rebuilt and the main block refurbished.

But Smith points out that there are plenty of other schools with similar problems.

“I don’t know anyone who hasn’t got some building problem or issue.”

How bad are things?

The school property estate is huge, made up of about 2100 state schools and more than 30,000 buildings.

Situated on 8000 hectares of land, it’s replacement value is $30 billion.

But about half of it was established more than 100 years ago, while 57 percent of the buildings are more than 40 years old.

According to a paper presented to cabinet, there are “several hundred” buildings that have been assessed as below average condition. The cost to fix them is about $160 million.

The ministry itself puts the number of buildings that need work at about 800, or three percent, of the portfolio.

Rob Giller, the ministry’s deputy head of infrastructure, says a large amount of the work has come from the failures of the construction market in the 1990s and early 2000s, such as the infamous leaky buildings issue.

In 2011, the ministry became more involved in supporting schools in managing their property by taking on complex projects itself.

Mouldy, leaky classrooms like those at Ridgway School have left some parts of the property unusable. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Previously it had mostly been new schools that the ministry dealt with, but the scale of the problem was so large that there was little choice but to act.

At the time, it was estimated to be a billion-dollar problem that would take 10 to 15 years to remedy.

Giller says great progress has been made towards that target, but situations like at Ridgway where classrooms are cold, ugly and in desperate need of fixing should have been addressed earlier.

“We’ve apologised to Ridgway because in 2015 when we did the initial design work we should have followed through, it shouldn’t have taken so long to get back to them.”

A resource area in a classroom at Ridgway School. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Things are about to change

Although the ministry is more involved than ever, a large chunk of maintenance such as basic repairs and painting is left up to school boards.

Each year schools are given about $280m to spend on their property, with about $80m put towards maintenance and the rest issued through five-yearly allocations for board-run capital projects.

The problem is, some boards are more competent than others.

The Government is due to announce today details of its strategy to reform how school property is managed that could see responsibility for maintaining schools taken over by the ministry.

Its goal is to bring every classroom up to an acceptable and modern standard by 2030.

In a cabinet paper on the proposal, Education Minister Chris Hipkins said too many schools had outdated and worn-out facilities that didn’t meet their education needs.

More than half of school buildings didn’t meet standards for temperature, humidity, air quality, acoustics and lighting and were not set up to support a modern learning environment.

While many boards managed their maintenance requirements well, others did not, he said.

“Some boards are clear about expectations and have the experience to effectively look after their property and seek assistance from the ministry as needed.

“Other boards lack the knowledge, skills and experience they need to manage day-to-day issues and make long-term investment decisions.”

Hipkins has asked the ministry to consult with the education sector and come back with options. A final decision will be taken to cabinet in October.

Possibilities could include the ministry taking over some work and using its size to centralise services, or for minimum standards to be monitored, and enforced if needed.

The plan is roughly in line with recommendations made by the Auditor-General in 2016 following its report that found serious issues in how the ministry approached its property network.

Speaking to Newsroom, Hipkins said the country was failing on both the state of its educational facilities and catering for the growing population.

“We knew we were going to have a big challenge ahead of us. I guess the immediacy issue was one that was a bit of a surprise in a sense in this forecast period we will have to fund an additional 17,000 places over and above what was already funded by the previous Government.”

There was a broad spectrum of options to be considered about who looked after maintenance and how it was improved, but changes could free up boards to focus on other areas, he said.

Until a few years ago education funding had been constrained and he promised schools that things would improve.

“Help is on the way. They’ll have to be patient just a little bit longer but we absolutely know we’ve got to do this.”

No faith in the ministry

Ridgway is not alone in their battle against crumbling infrastructure.

At South Wellington Intermediate, there’s more frustration.

The school has been in the media several times over the past few years, complaining about its leaky roof.

In April last year, the ministry approved funds to fix the roof but the work is yet to start.

Liddall said the board had struggled to find someone to do the work for the amount approved, which the school had warned would not be adequate.

Now, the tender has doubled and buckets are used to collect water pouring from the roof and the ministry has taken over the repair’s management.

“The boat is sinking and we are bailing and nobody is taking any notice.”

But principal Traci Liddall has had enough.

“[Your call] is quite timely actually because I’ve just been drafting a letter that the board is going to sign and send to the ministry actually, basically saying this is bullshit.

“Just dealing with the ministry is an exercise in frustration. You can’t talk to anyone who can actually make a decision so everything just takes forever.”

If the ministry takes over more of the maintenance work from schools, it will have to build goodwill with schools who have struggled for years to get major work done.

For Liddall, who is sick of emptying those buckets, any faith that the ministry can manage its building problems has evaporated.

“The boat is sinking and we are bailing and nobody is taking any notice.”

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