Christchurch school fights closure in court

JODY O'CALLAGHAN
Last updated 05:00 01/07/2013

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A Christchurch school is seeking a judicial review into its proposed closure and is looking for donations to fund what could be a $30,000 legal battle.

In a last-ditch bid to stay open, Phillipstown School's board of trustees will this morning lodge papers with the High Court seeking a review of what it claims was an illegal decision-making process.

Education Minister Hekia Parata, who announced last month that Phillipstown School would merge with Woolston School from January, said it was "disappointing" the school was taking their battle to court.

Board chairman Wayne West says Parata's decision-making process was "based on mistakes" and in breach of the Education Act 1989.

Officials refused to give the school information it needed to respond to claims about the extent of earthquake-damage to school buildings, he said.

The decile one primary school, which has 163 pupils, had one building damaged by earthquakes, with an estimated $3.5 million cost to fix over 10 years. Surrounding land was classified as technical category 2 and 3.

Parata's rationale for the merger was that the site had liquefaction, and both Phillipstown and Woolston schools had small rolls in an area with an over-supply of primary school places.

"It is tremendously sad that we have to take legal action but it has become the only option left to keep Phillipstown School open," West said.

The Crown gave assurances that the Ministry of Education did not intend to prevent the board from challenging the merger decision, and would not make any "irreversible change" until about October.

But it meant the case had to be heard before then, West said.

Phillipstown School principal Tony Simpson said the fight to save the school was "very, very important".

"We owe it to our kids."

Simpson would not disclose the cost of the judicial review, but agreed it would be "significant".

"We do have a budget. We've certainly got a lot of work to do within the extended community with making that budget happen."

The school had already received some donations and was hoping that that would continue, he said. "To place a value on our children, we just don't think is appropriate."

They would not be touching the school's operations grant money.

The school had received advice from public law experts Chen Palmer and Canterbury University, which led a free legal advice service to schools looking to challenge the closure and merger decisions.

Law school associate professor Chris Gallavin identified in May that Phillipstown School had a strong case for a judicial review, since the interim decision was materially different from the proposal the schools were consulted on. But a judicial review could cost schools between $20,000 and $30,000, he said.

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Parata was hesitant to say anything since the matter was soon to be before the courts, but said it was "very disappointing" the school was taking legal action.

"We have worked really hard to provide every resource of time, information and funding and will defend the process."

Labour education spokeswoman Megan Woods said Phillipstown's legal action showed how the process "just didn't engage with communities".

In December, the Ombudsman's Office instigated a review of the Canterbury school closures, which prompted a general investigation into the policy and practice of the Ministry regarding such consultations.

- The Press

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