The Government is facing a $1.5 billion bill to fix leaky school buildings – and Education Minister Anne Tolley says the soaring cost is keeping her awake at night.
"I wake up in the middle of the night and think, 'God, what am I going to do, we can't pay for it,"' she said yesterday.
Estimates have put the bill at a minimum of $1.5b.
"We have just scratched the surface" of how many schools would be affected, she said. The Government had previously spent $40 million on repair work – with more scheduled this year – but 157 schools still need work. Of these, six are in Wellington.
"There just isn't the money to go out and borrow one-and-a-half-billion dollars and start repairing schools," Mrs Tolley said.
She planned to consult Finance Minister Bill English on getting more cash, but would also have to look at paring back existing education programmes.
The Education Ministry would have to pick up the tab if other liable parties, such as builders or architects, could not be pursued, or costs could not otherwise be driven down, she said.
She was "appalled" to find no work had been done by previous governments to gauge the problem. "[The previous government] buried their head in the sand, which is a pity because there was lots of money flying around."
Because nothing had been done sooner, some builders and architects could no longer be pursued through the Weathertight Homes Tribunal, as the 10-year liability period had passed. Meanwhile, buildings could have unnecessarily deteriorated.
The Government has just completed a survey of possible leaky schools in Auckland. A similar $22m nationwide survey of all schools built or renovated since 1994 is now under way.
There had already been $80m set aside in this year's Budget to repair leaky buildings at 12 schools, but others would have to wait much longer as there was no extra money, Mrs Tolley said. Several schools in Tauranga had had to be demolished, and Auckland's Macleans College needed 21 classrooms replaced.
Schools would have to meet stiff requirements to prove damage was a result of leaky building syndrome, and repair work would be prioritised by extent of damage.
Labour education spokesman Trevor Mallard was surprised at the estimated bill. "None of us had any idea it was on this scale, and if [Mrs Tolley] says she did, I don't believe her."
However, he said: "I'm not going to take responsibility for the National Party's decision to deregulate the building industry."
ROT SETS IN AT WELLINGTON CLASSROOMS
Brooklyn Primary School is facing another year without assemblies, after a library and classroom were found to be leaky at the beginning of last year, and that class now has to use the hall, principal Liz Rhodes says.
An Education Ministry report took about six months longer than hoped, so the building work fell just outside the 10-year limitation period, meaning the ministry would have to foot the entire bill.
Raumati Beach School's leaks were deemed to have been repaired several years ago, and were kicked off the ministry's list, but principal Mike Farrelly says the "Band-Aid" repairs did not last.
Water running down walls, water stains and smelly carpet had become regular fixtures, but it was a constant battle to get the ministry's insurance company to pay for the work – meaning thousands of dollars had had to come out of the school's property grant and from staff professional development money.
A major rebuild 14 years ago should have taken Eastern Hutt School into the 21st century. Instead, it is the bits built 94 years ago that keep the school going.
Five modern classrooms, the administration block, toilets and part of the hall and library are all leaking – and pupils are using spare rooms in buildings built during World War I.
"The whole lot of it's leaky building [but] all the old part of the school ... is solid as a brick," principal Dianne Patterson said.
Problems began to manifest themselves shortly after construction, while others developed over the years. "[We have had] really significant ongoing leaks, which we have spent large amounts of money trying to get fixed and haven't been able to."
She had hoped repairs would be done over summer, but work was now due to start next month.
- The Dominion Post