It is now history that when Education Minister Hekia Parata and representatives of her ministry flew into Christchurch last month they made a complete hash of the launch of the Government's planned overhaul of Canterbury's schools.
The way they handled their announcement to principals and board chairmen and women was a disaster - from the euphemistic, even misleading, use of the term "rejuvenation" to include schools actually earmarked for closure, to handing out colour-coded name tags which the recipients did not know reflected the possible future of their schools.
Understandably, the reaction of schools, parents and pupils to this apparently ill-thought out treatment was emotional and angry. As a result, the Education Ministry's attempted spin tainted the entire proposal and ensured it became another highly charged issue in a city where many people have much to be annoyed about.
It would be nice to think the dust has now settled a little across the region's playgrounds, but the level of outrage remains high. At a time when Christchurch especially is in such a state of flux, any proposals to change schooling were always going to be contentious, even if the data behind the plans was incontrovertible and the announcement had gone smoothly. As we know, the latter certainly failed to do so and the quality of the former appears to be rather variable, to put it kindly.
Schools lie at the very heart of our communities. The region's damaging earthquakes have tried their hardest to destroy or at the very least dislocate communities across the city, but it is not just schools that have been affected in some way. So have churches, libraries, shops, roads, swimming pools, parks and meeting venues for local groups.
All these neighbourhood resources and services are now having to come to terms with the new patterns and routines of a changed city, and with losing members, parishioners or customers, or with having lost their buildings. So, in the same way, it is inevitable that changes wrought by the quakes will require a fresh look at schools, where they are located and if they are best servicing their local areas. Even before the ground started shaking, the ministry was required to keep a watch on the feasibility of the region's schools and consider where new schools may be needed and where others might have to be closed.
The ministry has now, more than a month on from its shambolic announcements, released the information on which it says it has based its proposed revamp of 38 Canterbury schools. That data shows those schools - 13 of which are slated to close and the other 25 picked to go through some kind of merger - would need work costing nearly $133 million over the next decade to repair quake damage, carry out earthquake strengthening and fix weathertightness problems.
Some principals continue to cast scorn on that information, saying they do not trust those figures. Others are cross at the length of the consultation period, which at six weeks in the final term of the year does seem far too short. And there are also worries from schools in the firing line for closure or merger that they have been given a hospital pass by the ministry in being asked to come up with alternative proposals.
The debate in the past month has been driven by a great deal of passion, bordering on hysteria at times. That is only to be expected. But now that the ministry has released the data, and the clock is ticking down to the December 7 feedback deadline, those emotions need to be curbed. Schools and school communities have to roll up their collective sleeves, gird their loins and concentrate on putting together the facts that will allow them to put the strongest case for their futures.
While clearly an unpopular and polarising figure in the sector, Parata has now offered to meet parents and communities of the 38 affected schools over the next few weeks, saying she wants to hear from them and to "get this right". For now Parata should be taken at her word that she genuinely wants to consult and that she has not yet made decisions on what will happen to those schools.
It is now up to those schools to rise to this challenge and prove to the minister that they really do have a case for their continued existence in post-quake Christchurch.
- The Press