New Zealand / Education

School building projects face delays and cost blowouts

08:56 am on 7 September 2023

The latest overruns all date since 2020. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

An Auckland high school where leaks have been falling on students' heads in the four years since Labour's Chris Hipkins announced a repair programme, is among seven schools that have undergone a review into building project problems.

The roofs and overflowing gutters at the 1700-student Botany Downs Secondary College have not been fixed despite the announcement of a $20 million repair project in 2019.

It is one of * 111 school build projects worth more than $10m in the pipeline - but the pipeline is blocked, or bleeding cash at a big chunk of them, according to Ministry of Education figures released to RNZ under the Official Information Act (OIA).

More than half are between one and five years late, and a quarter are more than a third over budget.

By contrast, ministry figures for recently completed projects worth over $10m, show only two out of 27 projects running over budget - albeit by a massive 390 percent and 150 percent. Also, far, far more of the completion dates of these completed projects are within cooee of their original estimated completion dates.

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This may have to do with scale. There are few projects worth more than $20m on the list.

The ministry said the cost reviews at the sample of seven schools, including Botany, Ellesmere and Wellington Girls, showed the overruns were "within expected parameters".

Botany Downs Secondary College. Photo: Supplied / Google Maps

Botany principal Karen Brinsden did not know what their latest cost estimate was; it has kept on changing, as have the plans, as have the members of the ministry team they must deal with.

"One word ... frustration," was how she summed it up.

"We've got a major weathertightness project that needs to be started and completed and for us to be able to move forward. So the ministry needs to do what they need to do to get us across that line."

Hipkins, as education minister, announced in February 2019 Botany Downs would be repaired. This came fresh off the Ministry of Education winning a big case against the builder of the leaky classrooms.

But Year 9 children back in 2019 will be gone by the time any work begins, possibly next winter.

It was not just the too-small gutters overflowing and roofs leaking across the campus.

"The water that gets into the ceiling areas, with ceiling tiles that are dropping to the floor," Brinsden said. "We've just been very fortunate that there's nobody injured at any time that that's happened."

They have had a single half-hour meeting with the ministry since last October, and have another in two weeks' time. It was hard to know why, as the school was keen to meet any time, she said, "cos this project's very important to the college and the community".

The ministry's response to the OIA request about 111 major projects underway showed 56 percent between one and five years late beyond their original completion date:

  • 41 at 1-2 years late
  • 16 at 2-3 years late
  • six at 3-5 years late
  • 23 at up to a year late

Only 20 were on time or thereabouts. Of the 111 projects, 29 - about a quarter - were at least 33 percent over budget.

Some had blown out much more than that, such as Wainuiomata High School, which Hipkins visited on the campaign trail on Tuesday. Hipkins celebrated that it was "on track" to open in 2025 - but he did not mention it had been due to open this December and was almost three times over budget at $67m.

"As with many large infrastructure projects, there have been delays due to buildability challenges and design. This is not uncommon in projects of this size and scope," Hipkins said.

Labour leader Chris Hipkins at Wainuiomata High School. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Ellesmere College's problems sparked the series of ministry-commissioned, independent reviews into cost overruns, which RNZ asked to see. This was refused on commercial grounds.

Ellesmere's community has peppered the ministry with complaints about its project, which was three years late and had doubled in cost to $60m. Its review "has supported us in identifying opportunities to improve value for money", the ministry told RNZ.

National property manager Sam Fowler said the series of seven reviews "largely identified costs to be within expected kind of parameters or where you think they might be, but they've helped us target certain areas where there might be opportunities to add value".

The ministry said in its response it had upped its game in the last five years on building schools. It had added planning resources, standardised designs and was now doing two business cases per project instead of just one. It was looking at using classrooms built off-site more.

"We have also improved our assurance activities with well-established design assurance and construction observation across all our significant projects," it said.

But the latest overruns all date since 2020, well into that five-year period of improvements. So why were the planning problems persisting?

"It's been a challenging delivery environment over the last few years," Fowler said. "There'll be a range of reasons."

Often, budgets went up when the scope of a school build or design changed, though he could not give a figure for how many of the 29 that are well over budget were in this category.

A 2020 property strategy review by the ministry said its capabilities in information and planning had been "heavily constrained" since before 2013.

The 'problem class' of seven reviewed schools included Christchurch Boys' High (due for completion in January 2022, now set for December 2024); Kamo High (Dec 2022/now due Feb 2025); Central Auckland Specialist School ("We have yet to break ground," it told RNZ - June 2023/now Oct 2025); and Ellesmere (Jan 2023/now Jan 2026).

It also included Wellington Girls' College, perhaps the worst-off school, that will have its tower block demolished in November. The school would be a dozen years without a hall or fields, if its still-uncertain rebuild does finally hit a revised end-date of 2028, said principal Julia Davidson.

"It is frustrating, it's really frustrating."

Wellington Girls' College. Photo: supplied

Her local ministry team had been stable and "fantastic" - but they still remained in limbo.

"Every time they sort of do a new report into what's happening under the ground, we've had to change what we're doing. So it's an incredibly complicated project, I get that," Davidson said.

The finance had not been approved.

"It's just getting so big, the finance keeps growing, so they haven't been actually go to Cabinet yet with a proposal for the money."

She wished they could have moved the cramped inner-city school to a whole new site, but there was not one.

Marlborough Girls College was another that praised the ministry's work in the area's massive $100m-plus merger of three schools.

"I'm pretty impressed with how things are going," said principal Mary-Jeanne Lynch, adding the partnership with local iwi helped.

"It is actually really challenging to rebuild a school ... while we're still running a school."

Material and labour costs had galloped ahead since the merger project was scope, she said.

Witness to that was the Christchurch schools rebuild that was now at $1.6 billion, 45 percent above its original 2013 budget, and was still working on 29 out of 115 schools.

The ministry owned 15,000 school buildings and managed all large projects, comprising 70 percent of all builds in total.

* Although appendix 2 has a column that reads 'original completion date', this is often not the actual such date, but only the completion date taken from business cases or reports available in 2020. Some of these projects could have earlier or much earlier original completion dates.