Friday, July 31, 2015

Government Tilts the Playing Fields


The most shocking example of Government bias can be seen when comparing the treatment of the Problem Gambling Foundation and Relationships Aotearoa with how it bails out failing private schools and Charter Schools.

Wanganui Collegiate is an elite Private School of around 400 students with a staffing ratio that is almost twice that of a public school. In 2012 it appealed to the Government to become an integrated school because it was experiencing financial difficulty from necessary building work. The Ministry and the Education Minister advised the Government not to bail out the school because there were already 1,400 empty places in secondary schools in the region, the integration would hurt local schools and the money would not be serving priority learners. The Government went against that advice and integrated the school, providing it with $3.1 million year of extra funding (over $7,000 a year per student).

It then transpired that not only did Wanganui Collegiate own $3 million of freehold land but it also charged amongst the highest school fees in the country ($10,900 a year for day students and $21,850 for boarders). John Key explained, when questioned about the reasons the Government did not follow advice regarding the school, that the school deserved support because of its high attainment levels.

The Northland Charter School Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru was provided with 1.6 million to set up with a starting roll of 61 students and $1.5 million of operational funding ($ 24,600 per student). Over it's first year of operation the school was found wanting by ERO, citing issues with learning, teaching, management, leadership and student engagement. Despite ongoing support the school continued to fail and out of 49 students entered for NCEA credits only one school leaver gained a formal qualification. Student numbers have dropped and the roll is now 37 students while still being funded at a guaranteed minimum roll of 71. That means Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru now receives $40,500 per student, around five times more than what most state schools would receive.

Again the decision has been made against the Ministry advice to close the school and Education Minister Hekia Parata has even decided to provide $129,000 of extra funding to cover the costs of implementing a remedial plan. Parata defends the decision because she claims it is in the best interests of the 37 vulnerable students to remain in the failing school until at least the end of the year. Nothing will be done about the unaccounted $4,000 of cash withdrawals made through the school's debit card and the purchases from McDonalds, KFC and Burger King that are not usually considered normal operating expenses.

Since 2012 Wanganui Collegiate has received around $9 million of taxpayers money to support 400 children with privileged backgrounds and over two years a failing Charter school will have received around $4.8 million for less than 50 students.

The extraordinary support received by the schools mentioned above was not extended to Relationships Aotearoa that had served around 25,000 people annually and had been providing professional counseling services successfully for over 66 years. The Government had passed on many of the counseling services it had once been responsible for to the NGO but then cut its budget by around $4 million. Despite Relationships Aotearoa investing in improved systems and being lauded as an example the Government wanted other NGOs to emulate, RA went over their budget by $271,000. In submissions the organisation questioned the unrealistic contracts and meagre funding the Government provided. Without any transition plans for the thousands of clients involved, the Government cut the funding and Relationships Aotearoa was forced to close its doors.

Another effective NGO almost received the same fate. The Problem Gambling Foundation is internationally regarded as an effective organisation in reducing problem gambling. It employs around 70 staff and has helped over 250,000 problem gamblers. One of the ways it has achieved its success is through encouraging communities to have a sinking lid policy on the number of pokies and this has been hugely successful.

The Government has a close relationship with SkyCity and part of its conference centre deal was a special allowance to increase its gaming machines by 250 and have 40 new gaming tables. The gambling industry has had its profits impacted by the effectiveness of the PGF and consequently the NGO found that it was no longer the preferred service provider and a surprised Salvation Army won the contract instead.

The Associate Health Minister Peter Dunn defended the decision and claimed the process was a fair one but the PGF challenged the decision in the High Court. Unsurprisingly the Court ruled against the Ministry, finding that proper procedures weren't followed and the tender process wasn't fair. Sadly even though the decision found in favour of the PGF the battle may not be over. Christchurch's Phillipstown school won their court case against the Minister of Education regarding a forced closure, but it occurred anyway.

This Government has clear agendas and to achieve those it will readily tilt playing fields unfairly. If an organisation questions government policy or challenges the profits of the wealthy it can expect an uphill battle.

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