New Zealand / Country

Taihape Area School gets rebuild a decade after flaw identified

07:25 am on 26 February 2021

A country town's school blighted by leaks and backed-up sewage is finally getting a rebuild.

Taihape Area School is getting a rebuild. a decade after flaws were exposed. Photo: Google Maps

But that won't begin until next year, a decade after Taihape Area School's myriad flaws were exposed, and in the meantime it faces whopping power bills to keep its classrooms healthy.

Its former board of trustees chair blames official incompetence, and fears that the rebuild on proven less-than-stable land won't go well.

But the school says its existing site is OK, its existing classrooms are healthy - which the Ministry of Education echoes - and that the rebuild will be "fantastic".

More than 250 children who attend years 1 to 13 at the 60 percent Māori school, face another winter in spaces described like this in official reports that have ping-ponged back and forth since 2014.

"The sewage system is failing, the stormwater is inadequate, the gas system is non-complaint and the school experiences problems with the electricity supply.

"The school currently has serious weathertightness and infrastructure issues.

"These issues are causing health and safety issues at the school, and impacting on the school ability to deliver high quality teaching and learning."

But Craig Dredge, who began as principal a few months ago, said the ministry had been supporting the school.

"The Ministry of Education has continued to support the school in ensuring that all classrooms are of a healthy standard - including making sure there is access to heating and cooling, and that it is an environment conducive to learning," he told RNZ in a statement, after doing a U-turn over giving a taped interview.

However, staying healthy comes at a cost: The annual power bill is $100,000, Dredge said.

"The power costs are about double per student the national average," Taihape farmer Andy Law said.

Law's four children have gone through the school, with one still attending. He was on the board for five years, including as chair last year, until he quit "in disgust" in October.

"It means we've got less money for other things."

The Ministry of Education is promising to rebuild the school smaller but better, with space for up to 300 students, which it is closing in on after a roll decline to 250 did a recent turnaround.

It took the ministry seven years to arrive at its preferred demolish-and-rebuild option.

'Pat us on the head'

As late as 2019, officials clung to a repair option.

Their business case costed this at $7m, $800,000 less than a rebuild, according to documents released to RNZ under the OIA.

"They were searching for cheaper solutions," Law said.

The repair approach would have entailed enclosing the leak-riddled roof, that is designed in a V-shape with internal gutters.

Only "idiots" would build a V-shape roof in a snow zone like Taihape, Law said.

"It's just bureaucracy and incompetence at the highest levels," he said. "If they do listen, they just pat us on the head and say, 'There, there, we know best'."

The board commissioned the build in 2007, but were only able to use construction companies okayed by the ministry.

The ministry took over in 2013 and then sued the builder, project manager, architect and the engineers, reaching confidential settlements in 2015.

Five years later, in January 2020, this was how the since-retired principal Richard McMillan was feeling.

"Obviously the sword of Damocles that is the School Rebuild, hangs uncertainly over our heads," he wrote in a newsletter. "The announcement that the school was to rebuilt shocked us all."

No fixes

The ministry's approach since 2013 had not helped, consultants reported in 2017.

"'The most significant finding from a review of the completed remediation work was that the majority of the work and associated expenditure was directed towards addressing elements that had not failed, rather than the actual weathertightness failure," it said.

"The ministry has changed the focus of future remedial work to fix actual and proven weathertightness failures."

The school board, recovering from the "shock" that the repair had been dumped in favour of a rebuild, undertook to quietly canvass the town, Law said.

He then wrote on behalf of the board to Education Minister Chris Hipkins early last year.

"The overwhelming consensus is that it would be better by far to build on the old college site on Rauma Road, than to rebuild once again on the Huia Street site," the letter said.

The existing one hectare site was "not that stable", Law told RNZ.

"Half of it is a gully system which has been used as a dump for fill from the town for the last 100 years."

A geotech engineer, brought in by the ministry to drill last year, told him the school foundations had an "unusual" number of micro-cracks, though their cause was unclear.

The board in its letter asked Hipkins to take the 6.8ha of old college land at Rauma Road out of the Waitangi Treaty settlements landbank.

The Ministry of Education had surrendered the land as surplus 15 years ago.

They handed the letter to the ministry, to hand up the chain.

Hipkins' spokesperson told RNZ the minister had not received a letter.

"I understand that when the ministry received the school's letter in January 2020, the school agreed to give the ministry an opportunity to address their concerns."

Law said a visit from the Secretary for Education, Iona Holsted, ensued and she visited both sites with him and principal McMillan.

Nothing came of it.

The ministry said independent geotechnical advice had confirmed the Huia Street site was suitable.

"As such, we are not considering matters relating to the status of the old college site," it said.

Dredge said there was no way the college land could be un-landbanked, and anyway, the existing school site was better, being close to the centre of town.

RNZ has approached the Mōkai Pātea Waitangi Claims Trust for comment.

In an earlier statement, the ministry's top property executive, Kim Shannon, told RNZ the Taihape Area case had been long and complex.

"We're working with the school to get a solution that works best for their school community," Shannon said.

Dredge said the rebuild had been delayed a bit by his arrival as principal, so that he could lay out his vision, which he did to the board last Thursday and to the ministry just this week.

The school's board of trustees chair, Shari Chase, declined an interview.

Law said he had pushed for the board to be more open, but failed.

Taihape locals "know there's a rebuild, and that's about it", he said.

"All the people I talked to all said, 'for goodness sake, rebuild at the college site, don't make the same mistake twice'."

Dredge is hoping for a ground-breaking on the rebuild this year, but the ministry is promising only that it will start "no later than the end of 2022".

The principal maintains the classrooms are OK, adding a plumber had sorted out the sewage problem.

As recently as 2019, a ministry report said: "Inadequate infrastructure particularly sewer infrastructure, resulting in issues of foul odour discharges, are yet to be resolved, as well as electrical, gas and stormwater."

Now, the ministry is saying: "While the redevelopment is underway, we will continue to ensure the current buildings are safe for learning."

Law is satisfied the classrooms are OK, at the price of stinging maintenance costs, such as having to keep importing replacement parts to fix the labouring French-made heat pumps.

In 2019, an official report put the rebuild cost at $10m, based on 2018 costings.

The ministry is sticking by that: "We do not expect further funding will be required."