Maintenance shortfalls

WIDESPREAD maintenance woes affecting Latrobe Valley schools are unlikely to be eased in the next state budget despite a recent audit finding 150 Gippsland schools required about $90,000 each to bring them up to “operational standard”.

That was the view of Australian Education Union Gippsland organiser Jeff Gray who said “decades of neglect” meant local schools faced large maintenance shortfalls, but he was “not optimistic” the State Government’s May budget would bring any joy.

The government’s “desperation to maintain a surplus” meant it was unlikely a long-term push by three Morwell primary schools to close their current, older facilities and merge on a new ‘super school’ site, for example, would be funded, Mr Gray said. 

The Morwell School Regeneration Project has been on the drawing board, with a master plan complete, for several years but has missed out on government funding in successive budgets. 

The schools have shelved any major capital works in favour of seeing the money spent on a new facility earmarked for a former Kurnai College school site and, in anticipation of having the project approved, pooled their Federal Government ‘Building the Education Revolution’ funding to build a $3.7 million hall on the site.

“I haven’t heard anything about whether this project will be funded or not, but based on the way the state is, with a very small surplus… I would be surprised if this is the budget that promises it, I am not optimistic of the chance for any major upgrades,” Mr Gray said.

The State Government has, however, vowed to spend $51.5 million on “urgent maintenance” at more than 200 schools, following the release of a maintenance audit several weeks ago.

Local schools will need to wait until term two to learn if they will be among those schools, a government spokesperson told The Express.

Mr Gray said many Latrobe Valley schools were “built in the 1960s and were never intended to last this long”.

“They are of light timber construction and through the 1960s and 1970s very little was done,” he said.

“The previous Labor government did a reasonable amount; one promise in one budget was a modernisation of all schools and the AEU lobbied intensively to get that promise, and reduce the timeframes…they did invest more but we would have said at the time it was not enough.”

Two of the Valley’s three government secondary colleges will be hoping for some relief to their ongoing maintenance battle, having recently documented their plight to Education Minister Martin Dixon.

In a submission delivered via State Member for Morwell Russell Northe, Kurnai and Traralgon secondary colleges outlined hundreds of thousands of dollars in maintenance shortfalls, with Kurnai warning these costs had “risen sharply over recent years”. The Kurnai submission said most of its budget allocation was spent on “reactive maintenance” and the school had been forced to let its campuses “continue in their decline”.

Despite previous statewide audits finding Kurnai’s junior campus was in “serious need”, the school said its most recent maintenance budget had been reduced. 

Mr Gray said he was struck by the presence of “great new (school) buildings” provided through BER money “sitting alongside others that are ancient, where floors are uneven, the carpets are holey, there are old desks and leaking roofs”. 

“Ideally if the government is serious about school education, then having an audit and not acting on it would be hypocrisy, so we want to see the budget increased for the school infrastructure program and a timeframe committed to, particularly where the urgent need is there,” he said.

“It is not good enough to put the future of education at risk to maintain a surplus and then build a war chest for the election.”