Time for Phillipstown leadership, not hysteria

DISTRAUGHT: Janaya Crisp-Murly, aged 4, reacts to the decision to proceed with the closure of Phillipstown School.
DISTRAUGHT: Janaya Crisp-Murly, aged 4, reacts to the decision to proceed with the closure of Phillipstown School.

Dear Phillipstown School, please get a grip. Fight to the death? Really?

I can understand that a decision such as a school closing is an emotional one and pushes buttons at a number of levels but, as an outsider, I have to say that the appearance of the key players advocating for the school is petulant, irrational and pointless.

We have kids that attend a local school and it does play an important part in our community but we are predicting changes some time in the near future. There are three schools between here and Dunedin and only about 300 pupils with the spread being far from even. We have always expected that the ministry will eventually step in and make a call. When it does I certainly hope our communities will act with a little more balance and perspective than we have seen from Phillipstown.

TEARY EYED: Phillipstown principal Tony Simpson after announcing the merger with Woolston School will go ahead.
TEARY EYED: Phillipstown principal Tony Simpson after announcing the merger with Woolston School will go ahead.

The Minister of Education does not have a bottomless pit of money to simply let schools with diminishing rolls and depreciating assets carry on existing regardless. There are serious responsibilities to take in to consideration as post-earthquake Christchurch reconstructs and reconfigures and all the social institutions and community infrastructure clearly need to reposition themselves.

There are a few things that flabbergast me about this reasonably minor storm in a teacup.

Firstly the fact that Mai Chen has been engaged again for further court action. I have worked with Mai before and she is certainly a force to be reckoned with and I rate her highly but she does not come without a cost. Perhaps she is working pro bono, which would make a difference, but if she is working at her standard rate the question needs to be asked who on earth is paying for it? Is it coming from school reserves or from the pockets of parents and the community, people so clearly moved by the imminent closure of the school? There is some irony if it is actually Crown money being used to fight the Crown.

The second thing is that the ministry is proposing that the new school the Phillipstown children would be relocated to would benefit from an $11.3 million investment. This is a glorious opportunity and I would have expected community leaders to be working furiously to have some influence over how that investment might work in the best interests of the newly configured school. I would not have expected a complete denial that an investment of this magnitude is a huge opportunity.

If the ministry happened to suggest that we merge our three schools and, by the way, here is $10m to get through the pain I can assure you I would be in boots and all to create the best outcome I could. It may not be an easy road as bureaucrats can be very fixed in their thinking, but once the number is declared it is all a matter of strategy and outcomes.

Thirdly it has been very disappointing to see the Labour Party playing politics and attempting to manipulate emotions. If they really have said that they would keep the school open then they have dropped pretty low in my estimation.

David Cunliffe is already looking like a desperate character after his comments on the royal tour but this is, quite frankly, adding to the embarrassment. It has the appearance of vote buying without any of the analysis and objective assessment of the community's situation. They may as well be promising a $100 increase in the dole for all the unemployed that vote for Labour. Ultimately it cannot be delivered.

Fourthly it is highly questionable in terms of role modelling. Trotting your kids out to cry in front of the cameras to make your point makes me wince. A group of parents that weren't moaning about dumb people making dumb decisions may well have aided their transition in a much more positive fashion. Instead the children have been drawn in to dramatics and will experience a degree of trauma that could probably have been avoided.

Finally, community is much more than a school. If there is a collective view that the community will die because the school has been merged with a boost of $11m then there are some seriously confused people in that community. Real community will be looking for opportunity and growth. Instead the blinkers are on and one has to question the sincerity of those in key roles and their agenda. I do wonder if the principal lives in Phillipstown or if his personal residence is in some other suburb.

For me the bottom line on these matters is what outcomes we can deliver for our children. There are so many sectors of our communities that fail to get the performance they deserve and this is a chance for families to genuinely reconfigure and lead. Or they could cry pointlessly and go to court. You choose.


Tahu Potiki writes a weekly column in The Press. He is also a board member at Ngai Tahu, where he was chief executive from 2002 to 2007, and the director of the Maori Televsion Service.

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