The NSW Minister for Education Sarah Mitchell’s social media last week was full of posts about an upgrade for one school and officially opening another new school and ‘A fabulous day opening NSW’s newest school’, and even an ‘Absolute pleasure to spend some time this morning with a group of principals from South Western Sydney. A really informative discussion with a group of incredibly passionate and talented educators’.
Yet there is no mention of a meeting, which wasn’t an ‘absolute pleasure’ that took place with a group of incredibly passionate parents and talented educators, that will impact not one but four schools in the Murwillumbah area.
Last Wednesday the Department of Education sent out a handful of emails to members of the school communities in Murwillumbah, inviting them to a meeting, with no explanation of what that meeting was about, to be held last Friday.
They were advised again by the Department late Thursday evening that the Minister for Education would be in attendance.
The media were not invited to attend.
State Member for Lismore Janelle Saffin said that from the day Minister Mitchell made the announcement, Murwillumbah’s school communities had called for her to come and meet them to explain the educational rationale behind her decision.
‘The Minister needed to explain why a mega school campus will be in the best interests of local children,’ said Ms Saffin. ‘On their behalf, I requested her to visit in person and she did, meeting P&C presidents, principals and Departmental representatives, beyond infrastructure officials.
‘Last Friday’s meeting was low key to allow P&C reps to directly outline their concerns.’
A closed-door meeting
Wollumbin High School P&C President Soenke Biermann said that while they were glad that the minister finally found the time to come up to the area after first being invited six months ago, it was still only to tell a handful of people in a closed-door meeting that the forced school closures and amalgamation into a radical mega-school will go ahead as planned. ‘So much for consultation!’
Mr Biermann said it’s hugely frustrating and disillusioning for parents to have both their valid concerns and alternative suggestions and proposals ignored in this manner. ‘We have been asking for genuine input, dialogue and a seat at the decision-making table since the moment this project was dropped on us like a bombshell without any community consultation whatsoever in November last year.
‘It’s very personal for us – it’s our children’s future that is at stake here and, like parents everywhere, many of us have poured countless volunteer hours into P&C meetings, fundraisers and community participation because we value and support quality public education.’
A dismissive and paternalistic government
‘To then be treated in such a dismissive and paternalistic, government-knows-best fashion is simply infuriating. Imagine not even talking to the community before making such a radical decision and now saying we are being consulted because we might get to pick the colour of the carpet in the new building – this was an actual example the minister used today,’ Mr Biermann said.
‘This is not good enough – we need a genuine say with all options on the table!’
The Wollumbin High School P&C’s alternative proposal is to build the new high school on the site of Murwillumbah High. ‘We very much welcome new infrastructure investment, but not building the primary school on the same site.
‘The money saved from that should be more than enough to rebuild the four classrooms and library at Murwillumbah East Primary School that were destroyed by the 2017 flood and carry out some minor repairs and upgrades at Murwillumbah Public School and Wollumbin High School.
‘In this way, we would still reap all the benefits of new infrastructure in Murwillumbah but would retain our four wonderful schools, giving parents and students diversity, choice and the small caring scale we love our country schools for!’
Mr Biermann said the minister did not engage with the P&C’s proposals for alternative options or provide satisfactory answers to concerns about school closures, loss of staff and reduced public education choices.
Selling out our children
Local MP Justine Elliot strongly condemned the NSW Liberal-National Government for their forced closure of the four schools in Murwillumbah. ‘These school closures are a shameful act by the Liberal-National Government. They are selling out our children and selling out our community.
‘Nationals Education Minister Sarah Mitchell, along with North Coast Nationals MPs Geoff Provest and Ben Franklin were caught out having an invitation-only, closed-door meeting in Murwillumbah about the school closures, but they continue to refuse to meet with the wider community, parents and students.’
Ms Elliot said that North Coast MPs Geoff Provest and Ben Franklin have imposed cruel and unfair school closures on the Murwillumbah community. ‘They have no shame.’
‘These closures will result in severe job losses and worse educational outcomes for local children. This shows yet again that in regional and rural areas – the Nationals just can’t be trusted,’ she said.
‘In total contrast to the North Coast Nationals – whose school closures show that they treat country areas with absolute contempt – I stand with the community in opposing these school closures,’ said Ms Eliot.
Less than 24 hours notice
Ms Mitchell clearly knew well in advance that she would be in the area as at least one other local school was prepared for her visit. She chose not to let the Murwillumbah community know.
President of the Murwillumbah East P&C Kylie Rose says that she only knew the minister would be at the meeting less that 24 hours before it happened. ‘I was advised at around 7.30pm on Thursday evening that the meeting on Friday morning would be with the minister.’
Ms Rose says she and her P&C have been calling on the minister to meet with the community for more than six months. ‘There is a very strong feeling out there that parents, teachers, students and community members should have been consulted before a decision of this magnitude was forced upon us.
‘That lack of consultation makes it very hard to move forward.’
Ms Rose says that while she was appreciative of the opportunity to put the views of the Murwillumbah East P&C directly to the minister, it quickly became apparent that Ms Mitchell had no intention of consulting on her original decision.
‘Personally, I remain unconvinced that closing four public schools and cramming all the students together in one mega school could be good for our children, our community or for public education more broadly,’ said Ms Rose.
Cloak and dagger
‘It was very cloak and dagger, but par for course as far as the way she has treated our community so far. I really think the minister needs to answer to our community and thus far, she has not had the courage to do so. It is shameful.
‘I know there is some anger from our Murwillumbah community at being given no notice of the minister’s visit and from being locked out of that meeting. That issue was raised and we asked the minister to return to meet with members of the wider Murwillumbah Community.’
Ms Rose says she suspects that if the community were made aware then they would have come out in force. ‘Murwillumbah has a very strong and proud tradition of standing up and speaking out on the issues that affect us. The closure of the schools, like the cuts to the hospital are very emotional for us. We are not a town to sit idly by whilst our services are stripped away.
‘I love that this community is willing to fight for the things that are important,’ she said.
Soenke Biermann said the Murwillumbah community treasures its small and beautiful country schools. ‘Don’t close them, minister! Bigger is not better!’