Teachers from broke school look to sue trustees

Teachers at broke Auckland private school Hill Top Primary are considering suing its board of trustees after being dumped at the end of last term with no holiday or redundancy pay.

Education Minister Anne Tolley told the Sunday Star-Times that private schools could ask the government to pay running costs if they were in financial difficulty, but the ministry would not bail out debts.

"That's very unfortunate that the school's in that position, but it is an independent school, and that's entirely between the owners of the school and the teachers and parents involved. It's nothing to do with the ministry."

The school's nine teachers are looking for new jobs, but schools aren't hiring until February. They were made redundant on December 22 following a drop in student numbers, which board chairwoman Rhonda Evans has blamed on parents not being able to afford the $10,000-a-year fees.

The school's board owes teachers up to $50,000 each and parents up to $2400 each in deposits. Evans says the board is considering several options, including refinancing its $2 million mortgage to keep the school going at its current site, or selling the school's $4.6m buildings.

Mairi Ferguson, employment officer at private schools' union the Independent Schools Education Association, says she would get legal advice about what options teachers have to get money owed, including if they could take a civil case against the board in the courts.

Employment law specialist John Hannan said it seemed unusual for a business not to have set aside funds for holiday pay in a separate bank account.

Hill Top is one of three cash-strapped private schools that in recent months have asked the Education Ministry to integrate them into the state school system.

The last time that happened was in 1999 with Hawke's Bay schools Iona College, Woodford House and Lindisfarne College.

The ministry is preparing reports on the latest pleas for Tolley, who will make a final decision.

Tolley said National had increased contributions to private schools by $60m over the next few years, which could be used for integration.

She said the ministry would favour requests from schools in areas with high population growth, such as Auckland and Christchurch.

If approved, existing boards of trustees would be replaced with new ones.

The government would pay maintenance costs and teachers' salaries, and schools could continue owning their buildings, if they could afford to. 

Sunday Star Times