Smith's loyalties split over school closure

Nelson MPs and the Tasman mayor are disappointed, appalled and surprised at the decision to close Salisbury School.

Nelson MP Nick Smith said today he felt "badly split" in terms of his loyalty to Education Minister Hekia Parata and the fact he was deeply disappointed for the staff and school board.

Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne said he was appalled and surprised at the decision, while Nelson-based Labour list MP Maryan Street said the closure was a tragedy for the girls who are there and for future students who would have benefited from the care and service the school provided.

Dr Smith said he understood the minister's reason, which was swayed by the fact 95 per cent of the students came from outside Nelson and the residential school was running at half capacity. He said a contentious issue during the consultation phase was whether it was viable to run a co-educational special education school.

Dr Smith said he had spoken with Salisbury School representatives and the education minister about the possibility of developing a co-educational special model on the Richmond site. He believed it was possible with careful management and design, but the board was reluctant.

Ms Street was critical of the process by which the decision was made, which she said was made with minimal engagement between Ms Parata, the school and students. "She found a way of saving money, by providing ‘wrap around' services at a cost of $29,000 per year instead of the $84,200 per year it costs to provide this special residential facility with intensive and careful education for its vulnerable students.

"She made a decision, then engaged with formulaic consultation, then came out with the decision she had first thought of. This is the worst case of cost over children's needs I have seen," Ms Street said. She also criticised the minister for not visiting the school or meeting any of the students.

Mr Kempthorne said Salisbury School was a high-value facility for the girls with complex needs who attended.

"It has provided a marvellous service and I cannot understand them taking this approach.

"I am appalled at the decision and it is a surprise because they had initially expressed only a possibility of closure. I felt the review would help them see the value of the school," Mr Kempthorne said.

He was aware the minister had said the students would be supported in the transition to residential schools in either Christchurch and Auckland, but he did not think that was credible.

Dr Smith said his focus would be on ensuring the girls would be properly and fairly treated in the transition. "I will also be working with the minister in trying to provide support for the staff looking for new employment," he said.