Fairfield's hidden treasure

OLD PUPIL: Vic Arcus, head the Fairfield Project committee, in the patch of Kukutaruhe Gully near his home.
OLD PUPIL: Vic Arcus, head the Fairfield Project committee, in the patch of Kukutaruhe Gully near his home.

From the dining room of his Hamilton home, Vic Arcus can see the playing fields of Fairfield College. His property is slap up against the tumble-down slice of Kukutaruhe Gully that borders the college, and there's a little track at the end of his street leading through the gully to the playing fields. 

Arcus, 46, is close to the heartland of his old school and a significant part of his earlier life. It was here that he met his wife, Fiona Bailey, also a Fairfield pupil, and in Arcus' final year, 1985, he was the school's head boy.  

He and his family returned to Hamilton eight years ago, after a longish absence, and nowadays Arcus is a professor of molecular biology at Waikato University. Arcus still has Fairfield College in his sights, in more ways than just by looking out the dining room window.   

He chairs the steering committee for the Fairfield Project, which is developing plans for a centre focused on ecological and environmental education and sustainable living on land at the back of the school. Long-term restoration of the gully is central to the project, which embraces a part of the grounds that the school doesn't use, and could be sold if there is no alternative educational use for it.   

The Fairfield Project offers that alternative. It is an ambitious proposal, but Arcus is optimistic, committed, gently persuasive. He knows the Kukutaruhe Gully  on his back doorstep well. He hears moreporks, said to be the gully's guardians, calling there at night. He sees an opportunity for Fairfield College to become a leader in the area of environmental and sustainability education, tapping into a sector he says will see massive job growth.   

Arcus says Fairfield students could get top-class experience and training in the grounds of their own school  and emerge well equipped for  tertiary study and jobs.   

He understands the college  may have day-to-day concerns about how it might all work, how it might come together to benefit Fairfield kids.  

''But the most powerful narrative is that you could be a student at Fairfield College and if you were involved in a project at the centre, you would be doing practical work around the environment or technology asssociated with sustainability.    

''You could be cultivating native plants or building a solar panel. You start to garner that experience, this hugely broadens your experience for jobs in a number of areas. ''Our contention is that this will become a nationally recognised centre, that the gully is an absolute gem in the centre of the city and it would become a centre for the education of all people of Hamilton, not just students of the college.''   

We're getting ahead of ourselves here, because there are hurdles to jump before this could happen, and today at Arcus' home, he's talking about the feasibility study that the Fairfield Project has committed to deliver to Fairfield College's board by December.

Fairfield College, with a roll of about 800 students, occupies a large site of  23ha, which includes a chunk of gully. The Education Ministry's School Property Guide indicates this is much more than is needed for a school of this size. The college is struggling to maintain the grounds that are excess to its needs, and at a public meeting last November, the ministry said if the land were deemed surplus to the school's education purposes, some of it should be released and eventually sold.  

There is a clear (and complex) protocol to be followed on this: When school property is deemed surplus - ie, a board decides it is no longer needed and no viable educational alternative is found for the land or building - it is placed into a disposal process, which is the responsibility of Land Information NZ. It is required to follow four steps (see sidebar) set out in the Public Works Act.    

Boards subsequently receive up to 50 per cent of the net proceeds, one-half the sale proceeds after all disposal costs have been deducted. The remainder goes to the Crown and is used for running school properties nationwide.  

It is unclear what Fairfield College would receive if this process were followed,  but the latest land valuation of the entire college site is $6.8 million. From Wellington, Kim Shannon, the ministry's head of education infrastructure services, says it's very early days yet for decisions at Fairfield. She says because the school is still in consultation with its community, the ministry is unable to determine the size of any plot of land that might be declared surplus, or confirm the value of it.   

Shannon says the ministry and board would have to jointly agree to what happens: ''We wouldn't impose a decision on the board.''  

Arcus and others from the Fairfield neighbourhood attended the November meeting and he says there was strong opposition to selling the land; the depth of feeling against it in the room was palpable. A small group immediately got together and put forward an educational alternative. 

Arcus is aware a land sale could potentially see a substantial sum of money for the college. If the land is retained, that won't happen.

''We have to balance that with our proposal.  We would instead embark on a project that would be a point of difference for the college, that would potentially attract more students to the college, and would potentially provide a revenue stream.   

''From my perspective, something positive had to be done - we needed to present a solution. The land had to be used for educational purposes, the significance of the gully became evident, the idea quickly gained momentum, it [the Fairfield Project] naturally evolved. It became a thing in itself.'' 

Concept plans include a low-slung, low-environmental-impact building nestled into the landscape, largely powered by renewable energy, with an administration centre, seminar and teaching rooms, and open-sided teaching pavilions in the gully. The plans - contributed pro bono - are the work of Hamilton firm Antanas Procuta Architects, largely developed by staff member Geoff Lentz.     

This firm has a reputation for its involvement in green projects, and Procuta and Lentz are excited by the Fairfield Project. They envisage a leading academy with huge potential. Much better for the community, they say, than perhaps another subdivision.

 ''We're happy to kick things off,'' Procuta says. ''It's the sort of project we do.''   

The steering committee's proposal, including architectural drawings and many curriculum possibilities, was presented to another public meeting in April, and the Fairfield board subsequently gave the project committee seven months to prepare a detailed feasibility study.   

Arcus says the board has shown faith in the committee to this point, now it needs to do its work, with input from all major stakeholders, that the Education Ministry will see benefits the school and its community. The study may cost about $25,000. There will be fundraising for this and a researcher will be employed.  

Further ahead, the committee hasn't done the sums on what the grand plan might cost and who it would tap for the money. Arcus says they could get started for very little, at a low level. The committee members have  been offered a relocatable classroom and could begin with that, and a volunteer, or they could raise enough money to pay someone for a year. 

''There could be small steps. It could grow organically.''  

He is encouraged by support for the project from neighbouring schools, tertiary institutions, and many others. He also says there are plenty of past pupils who would jump at the chance to give back to the school.

Which is welcome news for Fairfield principal Richard Crawford. For him, one of the best things about the Fairfield Project is the way it has mobilised the community, drawing greater goodwill for the school  than might have been the case for a while. 

It is fair to say that some in the Fairfield community turned their backs on the school as it grappled with governance issues at the end of 2008, when staff passed a no-confidence vote in then principal Julie Small. The Education Ministry brought in commissioner Dennis Finn to take control when the board stood down a couple of months later. Finn later described his time at Fairfield as one of the toughest interventions he'd ever worked on.   

Crawford came to the school in 2012. He inherited the legacy of this quite lengthy troubled period; he said at the time that he'd always known Fairfield College to be a fantastic school and he hoped to move things forward.   

On a drizzly wet day recently, he walks around the extensive grounds, indicates the gully that is probably both a blessing and a burden: ''It's just a beautiful place, we're responsible for it, but there is not a lot of money to spend to spend on the upkeep of it.'' 

He says the Fairfield Project is an opportunity the school needs to explore, but the feasibility study will determine the  board's eventual decision. 

There is no shortage of supporters. A past pupil who immediately got involved is Rachel MacMurray, 27, a resource management planner at Opus Consultants in Hamilton. MacMurray left Fairfield in 2004.   ''I only have good things to say about the college. It really influenced me in the way I see the world.'' 

MacMurray says she had supportive teachers and studied with a wide cross-section of pupils. 

''There was a lot of school pride. I really liked that.'' 

She says if anyone said something bad about the college, she'd think, You don't know what you're talking about.     

She loves the idea of the sustainable education centre; in some ways, it taps into the area she works in. 

''It's a neat opportunity for students to get a feel for the kind of jobs available. I found out by fluke. This proposal makes sense, and it will link with people already working in that area at Waikato University and Wintec.'' 

MacMurray says there was a real buzz at the meeting where the proposal was presented - a lot of support.  But it has to be about Fairfield College, she says, and how it will work for the students. 

''How do you engage with kids that age? That's the important part. We need to see how it would work for them.''  

Bruce Clarkson, Waikato University professor of restoration ecology, has offered advice to the project. He salutes the concept.    

Clarkson knows Fairfield College pretty well and also the ''amazing resource'' of its gully. His cousins were foundation pupils of the school, his two daughters are former pupils, his wife a former teacher there.  He likes the way the project connects with the school curriculum and would reconnect young people with the environment.  He says that even a generation ago in New Zealand, most families had a relative with a farm and urban kids could get  outdoor experience. This is not so much the case nowadays.   

He sees potential for students to learn about rehabilitating a damaged ecosystem and gain vocational skills for future employment. 

''We need more people who know how to fix the environment, learn practical skills for a new style of job.'' 

Clarkson points out that in Hamilton Ecological District (159,376ha), there is only 1.6 per cent left of the original ecosystems.

 ''This is a figure that rivals some of the worst examples in the world of removing the original system. It is the last little bits of something, it is a shell of something that used to be here, and again that is why gully restoration is so important.''

Which brings us lastly to Kukutaruhe itself, the gully system that extends through Claudelands and northwards towards Donny Park in Chartwell. In te reo Maori, Kukutaruhe translates as kuku (native pigeon), and taruhe (flight), referring to the flocks of native pigeons that once flew in this area. 

It has been identified by Hamilton City Council as a gully of special interest, yet to many it is an unsung, largely unknown area. In the glimpses of it caught on a couple of wet-day visits to Fairfield College, it is a tumble-down mix of native trees and exotics; there are oaks and cabbage trees and ponga and rimu and conifers and expanses of weeds and broken branches and forest litter.   

Fairfield's Richard Crawford describes the stretch that borders his school as a ''rough jewel waiting to be developed''.  

The Fairfield Project wants to make the gem shine as a bold resource for the school and city.


The main steps for disposing of surplus school property, as required by the Public Works Act 1981 are:

1.      Determine if the land is needed for any other public works.

2.      Determine if the land needs to be offered back to the person the Crown originally bought it from, or their successors.

3.      Offer the land to Maori under a Treaty claim settlement or, possibly, hold the land for a future settlement.

4.      Sell the land on the open market - generally by public tender or listing with a real estate agent.

-Source: Education Ministry

Waikato Times