Education / Politics

Mould, mushrooms and musty classrooms

05:00 am on 6 March 2024

Twenty years of hoping for better facilities - such as buildings that aren't riddled with mould - have been dealt another blow at Sommerville School. 


Mould eating away under a window in a room partly used as a music therapy space Photo: Tom Kitchin

Sewage bubbling out of floors, mushrooms growing above windows, prison-like outdoor spaces.

This is the reality for the Sommerville special school, specifically for those with disabilities, in east Auckland.

The school's promised rebuild has never eventuated. Instead, its environment just gets worse as its board hesitates to spend money on buildings that may just be demolished. 

But any changes for the better are on hold as the government announces an inquiry into "unrealistic and unaffordable" school property works.

In today's podcast, Sommerville School principal Belinda Johnston and deputy principal Corey Busfield give The Detail's Tom Kitchin a tour of their crumbling environment.

Principal Belinda Johnston and deputy principal Corey Busfield are fed up with years of inaction over their school rebuild Photo: Tom Kitchin

A room partly used as a music therapy space has mould and smells awful.

"Just under the window, the mould has actually started eating into the plaster," says Busfield. "My chest gets quite tight once I've been in here for a little while." 
Next is the asbestos-ridden hall.

"There were some leaks in the roof so one of our projects was to get it re-roofed over the holidays,'' Busfield says.

"Now they've done half of the job and started finding asbestos sheeting up in the apex, so they have stopped work altogether... at the apex at the top there are holes for ventilation normally - they've now taped those up for safety, just in case any asbestos fibres were to float down."

And the staff lunchroom where mushrooms are on the menu - and not in a good way. 

"These are black mushrooms growing out of the top of the window right up by the ceiling," says Johnston.  "They are the most disgusting things you've ever seen in your life on the inside of the building and there's a musty horrible smell in here." 

These types of problems have been going on for years and nothing has happened, despite promises, designs and plans.

Mushrooms growing above a window where staff have been eating their lunch Photo: Tom Kitchin

"We've got families who came to this school more than 16 years ago with their child and were told by the previous principal, 'don't worry about the crumbling buildings, because the Ministry of Education has promised us a brand new school'," Johnston says.

One of these promises was in 2018, when the Labour-NZ First coalition government announced Sommerville would get a $17 million rebuild. 

"There was a genuineness to see how we could try and do better for these students," Busfield says.

"Our first couple of designs went off to be reviewed by what's called the design and review panel for the ministry and it came back saying no - they weren't happy with it for their various reasons, so there was a lot of backwards and forwards. 

"I've been here 20 years - there's been this wave of promises and then no communication or they've pulled the project as things have changed."

The Detail also talks to Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne about the wider political issues.

"The Ministry of Education runs the building projects, it funds the building projects, the boards of trustees at the schools don't control the projects themselves, so it is all done out of the ministry," Milne explains.

"What I hear from a lot of schools is it can be very difficult to get their voices heard."

He doesn't agree with Labour's claim that National is manufacturing a crisis. 

"I've been reporting on this problem for a couple of years now - it's been a mounting problem. Construction inflation has just been completely unmanageable, with budgets being blown left, right and centre.

"Of course we want the best facilities we can for our kids. But somewhere, someone in the middle has to say 'you know what, there's only so much we can afford, and we've got to find efficiencies where we can'." 

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