Ballina mayor and longtime teacher at Alstonville Public School, David Wright, is shocked and disappointed at the Education Department’s decision to remove a dozen towering old fig trees from the school grounds, which he says will be irreplaceable.
Cr Wright believes it has been a case of death by a thousand cuts for the trees, which have been increasingly encroached upon by building works at both Alstonville Public and neighbouring St Joseph’s schools.
He said Council’s own arborist’s findings and an earlier report about the trees both disagreed with the recommendation by the arborist contracted by the Education Department to remove the trees.
Nevertheless he said he had encouraged the department to obtain a report.
A report received by the school just a year ago cleared the trees, subject to a regime of careful pruning.
But following the death of a Sydney schoolgirl earlier this year the department decided to audit the condition of the trees in all school grounds around the state.
The new report came in after a branch fell from one tree, apparently narrowly missing a teacher, in the adjacent St Joseph’s School playground, near new play equipment that had recently been placed directly under the trees.
‘I thought the arborist would say to just trim them. I didn’t think there was any possibility trees would fall down. I’m not an expert but I thought the other trees were alright,’ Cr Wright told Echonetdaily.
He places the blame for the trees’ demise squarely on a contractor engaged by St Joseph’s, who he says dug out roots and cut off sections of trees to build a fence between the two schools, seven or eight years ago.
‘I think everything would’ve been quite okay if the trees hadn’t been damaged by the fence,’ he said.
Despite being a councillor and a senior staff member at the school, Cr Wright said he had no idea the fence was going to be built.
‘The guy just came during the holidays and chain-sawed everything in the way and put the fence through,’ he said.
The next nail in the coffin came with the adding of a new school hall, which meant moving a number of demountable classrooms beneath the canopy.
‘When new the hall went in with the BER, classrooms that had been on that side of the school were shifted and covered walkways added, and the figs trimmed.’
Cr Wright says that by next year there will be 12 separate demountable classrooms under the trees.
Another blow came late last year, when ‘St Joseph’s put playground equipment under [the trees] and roots were dug up’.
‘I spoke to the contractor and told him the trees were already damaged. It appears since then a branch fell off and they’ve roped off the playground.’
Cr Wright says he hasn’t read the arborist’s full report but that ‘Council’s officer thinks they could be trimmed’.
He concedes, however, ‘it’s nothing to do with Council,’ but adds ‘I would urge if they could be trimmed, the same as Council does with figs in the streets, they could be balanced up in shape’.
‘It’s a terrible shame. These are huge trees, they’re historic. I was upset when [some trees] were taken out before: they cast beautiful shade on the classrooms.
Council approval is not required for the removal of the trees which, even so, will not come cheaply.
Cr Wright estimates three figs that were previously removed from the grounds cost the Education Department in excess of $100,000.