Key says no to plea by school

ADAM ROBERTS
Last updated 13:00 14/02/2013
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The prime minister has responded to a letter from Salisbury School requesting a new minister to determine its future by again backing his Minister of Education Hekia Parata, who denies she has a bias towards closing the school.

The Richmond school's board of trustees chairwoman Helen McDonnell sent a letter to John Key asking him to choose another minister to make any decisions about the future of the school, due to fears Ms Parata would not approach the issue fairly.

In the letter, sent last Friday, the board said since a December High Court ruling that found Ms Parata to have acted unlawfully in closing the school, there had been no formal decision regarding the school's future.

However, the board was concerned that the Ministry of Education had adopted a "sinking lid" policy by cutting the school's budget and reducing its roll through stopping new admissions. This had led to its funding being slashed about 53 per cent to $2.2 million.

As well, the ministry had long shown a preference for closing Salisbury School and transferring its students to Halswell Residential College, with High Court documents showing this was first suggested in May 2011.

The minister and ministry were entitled to adopt policies for special education, but they could not do so in a manner which pre-determined the outcome of the statutory process for closing a school, the letter said.

Given the High Court ruling, the school did not have confidence that Ms Parata could make the decision fairly. There had been no review of the unlawful closure process.

But a spokesman for Mr Key said he had complete confidence in Ms Parata as Education minister, as he had already stated on numerous occasions.

Ms Parata, who was also sent the letter, said she was not sure what conflict of interest there was, as the ministry had been transparent in its process and she was bound by the Education Act.

She had offered to meet with the board of Salisbury School, but this offer had been declined to date.

"I am still willing to meet with the board and to listen to their comments and perspectives with the context of the intensive wraparound approach."

Salisbury remained open and the issues raised would be carefully considered before any further options for the residential special schools' network were looked at, she said.

In response to the accusation of a "sinking lid" policy, she said during 2012 Salisbury had 30-40 students and were funded for 80.

She said this year there were 20 students starting at the school and it was funded for up to 40 girls, which meant it was receiving $2.6m in funding.

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The decision to close two of the four residential special schools was in the context of expanding the Intensive Wraparound Service, which could provide for at least 220 students, she said.

A ministry spokeswoman denied that there was a "sinking lid" policy, saying the success of the wraparound service meant there would be less demand for a residential option so fewer places were likely to be required. This was the case for all residential special schools.

Mrs McDonnell said she was disappointed with the disingenuous spin from Ms Parata.

The school had never received a meeting request from the minister, with the only reference to a meeting found in a media release in January, which had never been followed up by her office.

Mrs McDonnell said the minister's answers showed she still wanted to expand the Intensive Wraparound Service, and to do so they wanted Salisbury closed, but parents had been clear that they wanted single-sex residential options for children with special needs.

"She has clearly not listened to anyone in the community - New Zealand's mums and dads - but her senior ministry bureaucrats.

"If she did not listen in September, why would we have faith that she would listen now?"

- The Nelson Mail

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