Parents take fight to High Court

Parents and the community are rallying to help Salisbury School take its fight against closure to court.

The board of the residential girls' school in Richmond has now filed judicial review proceedings in the High Court at Wellington against Education Minister Hekia Parata's decision to close the school.

The school has also sought an interim order that ministry officials take no further steps to shift the girls and close the school next month until the legality of the minister's decision is determined by the court.

The move comes after Mrs Parata announced last week that she proposes to close Salisbury School. The school is in a race against time as moving its students to a boys' school in Christchurch is set to happen from the beginning of next year, and the board aims for a court hearing before the end of the year.

Board chairwoman Helen McDonnell said its fight to save Salisbury had support from parents and the local community.

"Members of the community have offered pledges to help towards any legal action, which we are very grateful for."

The board's legal counsel for the action is Chen Palmer.

The cost of the court action was not yet known as it had just begun, said Mrs McDonnell.

"It is very unfortunate that we have to go down the path of legal action, but we have no choice if we wish to ensure the safety of our students, and that there is sufficient provision of appropriate education for their needs," she said.

The school has 65 students with intellectual impairment from around the country and 62 staff.

The court action comes as they make decisions about their future.

Mrs McDonnell said: "We have asked the court for an interim order that ministry officials take no further steps until the legality of the minister's decision is determined by the court. Once the court's decision has been made, which we hope will be soon, parents can take this into account when making decisions about their girls' future."

Lawyer Mai Chen, who provided legal advice to the school when it made its final submission on the plan, said last week there were questions around whether the legislative tests had been met.

The school had been told it would be closed from the end of the year.

When it did close, the students would need to be shifted to Halswell in Christchurch.

An Education Act provision meant Halswell, a single-sex school, could not legally become a co-educational school before February 1, she said.

Taking the boys away from the school grounds until the school's legal status had changed would not be enough, she said.

There was also a concern over whether the ministry had properly advised the minister of the possible risks by sending them to a co-educational school.

With court action pending, Ms Parata today declined to say how confident she was that the decision to close could go ahead as planned, or whether Halswell School would be able to safely take girls.

"It is within a board's right to seek a judicial review so we respect their decision. It is disappointing that they have chosen to go down this path as we have provided a full and transparent process and we know that expanding the intensive wrap-around service will reach more children with special needs and give parents more options," she said.

Nelson MP Nick Smith said today he had kept the door open to Salisbury representatives as the legal process proceeded so that it was possible to maintain a constructive dialogue with the minister.

Dr Smith, who has previously been education minister, said based on past experience of judicial reviews it would be unusual for the court to overturn the minister's decision but a judge could require the minister to reconsider and redo the process.

He believed it was possible to run a co-ed specialist residential school provided boarding hostels and proper safety provisions were put in place to ensure the students were well protected.

The Nelson Mail