A great win for Sydney schools
by Peter Mac Last week, students, teachers, parents and supporters rejoiced on hearing that Sydney's Hunters Hill High School and Erskineville Public School were to remain open. This followed an earlier government decision not to close schools in the inner city suburbs of Marrickville and Dulwich Hill. Kathy Prokhovnik, vice-president of Hunters Hill High School's Parents and Citizens Association (P&C) said the campaign to save the school had involved "constant meetings, phone calls, three major submissions to the 'Building the Future' consultation process, the Schools Closure Review Committee, and the Upper House inquiry into the closure of inner city schools, and a seemingly endless string of assertions and statements to research and disseminate." The State Government's decision to retain this school appears to anticipate a damning State Ombudsman's report regarding inadequate Government disclosure of information. After initially requesting information about the plan, the P&C Association was told no documents were available. Ms Prokhovnik commented: "No documents generated in making a decision of such mammoth importance? Wiping out a co-educational high school and leaving an entire electorate served by one single-sex secondary school — and no meetings were held, no minutes kept, no research done, no briefing papers?" The Ombudsman subsequently discovered hundreds of documents and evidence of 39 meetings. Like their Hunters Hill counterparts, the Erskineville P&C battled an obstinate bureaucracy, and finally resorted to freedom of information processes to access crucial documents. The school's enrolments rose by 20 percent from 1996 to 2001. The Government 's decision to close the school resulted in a fall of enrolments from 65 to 29, but this only spurred the P&C to greater action. The president of Erskineville P&C, Jeni Mulvaney, later described the closure process as "completely shoddy". Unsavoury reputation Although welcome, the NSW Carr Government's backflip over the three Sydney high school sites has done relatively little to eliminate the Government's unsavoury reputation for selling off state-owned sites, particularly those of high real estate value. Since gaining office the Carr Government has sold off the Dover Heights and Seaforth Technical Colleges. Despite enormous public opposition, it still intends to long-term lease Sydney's historic Quarantine Station to a private hotel chain, and to dispose or lease off many other prime government-owned sites. Can the Labor leopard change its right-wing spots? While bemoaning its loss in last weekend's Cunningham by-election, the Labor Party at federal level vowed only to "deal with the perception" that the electorate was being taken for granted. At a State level, the Labor Minister for Education appeared crestfallen when announcing the Government's backflip over the Hunters Hill and Erskineville schools. However, the Government shows no signs of reversing its decision to close several other schools, including Maroubra High School. Redfern and several other schools in the area are also still up for amalgamation. It appears that the Government's about-face has more to do with winning the State elections in five months time than with any "road to Damascus" conversion to a principled position on public education.