New Zealand / Politics

School building inquiry 'absolutely not' a cost cut exercise - Erica Stanford

12:14 pm on 27 February 2024

Education Minister Erica Stanford Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Education Minister Erica Stanford says a review of school property projects is "absolutely not" a cost cutting exercise.

Announcing the ministerial inquiry on Monday, Education Minister Erica Stanford said the government had inherited a system "bordering on crisis" .

The Ministry of Education had identified up to 350 projects "where expectations far exceeded what could be delivered" and had already paused 20 building projects, Stanford said.

Some projects were weeks away from shovels in the ground, but "funding available hadn't been managed well enough to meet what schools understood had been approved", she said.

The principal of a school in Bay of Plenty warned that halting partially completed building projects might end up costing more money than would be saved.

Pāpāmoa College is one of 20 schools with builds already put on hold, and principal Iva Ropati told Morning Report schools were being blindsided by a political shift.

"We had a property project that was all sorted, well managed, it was within budget projections" - Pāpāmoa College principal Iva Ropati

The school had a $60 million building project under way and the last two blocks, to cost $20m, were on hold.

Ropati said school had a well-managed project but was "caught up" in this inquiry.

"We've increased our roll by 50 to 100 a year its not going to be too far away before we're in some serious strife unless we have the space to deliver our curriculum.

"If the ministry is saying they're going to rescope again in April once the inquiry's done they are without doubt going to be up for more money as those costs increase."

"There is nothing wrong here, National just needed to we continue the funding track" - Former Education Minister Jan Tinetti

Former Education Minister Jan Tinetti said the government was "manufacturing a crisis". Photo: RNZ // Angus Dreaver

Former Education Minister Jan Tinetti said the government was "manufacturing a crisis" in order to reprioritise funding and the review was not justified.

Labour had doubled the budget on school property over its term, having itself inherited a system "bordering on crisis", she told Morning Report.

Tinetti said the ministry's approach was already to move away from bespoke building and towards modular buildings, and projects on hand were "not gold-plated". Where costs were increasing, the ministry would re-scope over the time of the projects, she said.

'Utter lack of transparency'

Secondary Principals Association president Vaughan Couillault told Nine to Noon the system was not fit for purpose and a shake up was needed.

"Properties always been on the agenda with ministers...we've raised it with many ministers over time," Couillault said.

"What we've got, for some reason, irrespective of whether you think the people making these decisions are good, bad or indifferent, we've got a systemic failure where the planning isn't right either in terms of roll growth...and the delivery doesn't work either."

There was an "utter lack of transparency" and communication from the ministry, he said.

"we've got a systemic failure where the planning isn't right" - Secondary Principals Association president Vaughan Couillault

"We've got a school in Auckland that hasn't used its gym for four years because it was sliding down a hill."

The design for remediation was done but any time things moved forward there was not enough money because things hadn't moved fast enough, Couillault said.

Some Canterbury schools post-earthquake hadn't been attended to in any way, he said.

Auckland Primary Principals' Association president Kyle Brewerton said it was the same story for the primary sector.

There were classrooms "literally sliding down hills" and schools were still waiting for clarity around a way forward, Brewerton said.

School property a priority - Minister

Stanford said the review of school property projects was "absolutely not" a cost cutting exercise.

The Ministry of Education had not been asked to save money and the government would be prioritising school property through the budget process.

"School property is a priority for this government, the problem that we have is a delivery problem" - Education Minister Erica Stanford

The government would be putting more money into building classrooms every year.

There was pipeline of projects which were over-engineered, had extensive landscaping or were bespoke design, Stanford said.

The uptake of modular design "hasn't been rolled out at scale, by the ministry's own admission".

"The question for Labour is did they get good value for taxpayers' money over the last six years and deliver as many classrooms they could for the money they were spending."

Asked whether the government was looking at public/private partnerships to fund school buildings, she said "Yes we are, we're looking at everything".

"The issue that the ministry has now got, because of this build-up of a pipeline of projects that the previous government weren't able to deliver on, they are now having to go back and look and redesign and rescope and reprioritise."