Principal 'beyond angry' at mould in eight Hutt Valley High School classrooms

By Charlotte Cook of RNZ

Hundreds of senior students from one of Wellington's biggest high schools are being forced to study from home because their classrooms leak and are riddled with toxic mould.

The principal of Hutt Valley High School is blaming the Ministry of Education saying officials have known about the problems for years and failed to act.

From next term, Year 12 and Year 13 students will have to do their work from home for two-and-a-half days a week because there's not enough room for them at school.

Two weeks ago teachers were given 30 minutes to clear their desks before a whole building was shut down and sealed off.

Thirteen classrooms, three bathrooms and a dance studio have been deemed unsafe. This left the school struggling for space to teach its 1700 pupils and it resorted to holding multiple classes at a time in the hall and library.

On Monday, the school decided it would have to send at least 500 senior students home.

One parent at the school, Miranda Cross, was furious.

"We live in a society where we get a free education. I think the reality is that we all know that education is underfunded and has been for a long time," she said.  "I think the expectations are that we can at least send our kids to school where they will receive an education.

"I know that the school has been really struggling with infrastructure funding from the ministry for a long time."

Cross said parents were asked to pay an infrastructure donation on top of other fees because of the underfunding.

The school's head girl, Charlotte Leach, was feeling nervous about being back at home to study so soon after last year's COVID-19 disruption.

She said some students would struggle.

"It definitely is a bit challenging to do it all again and especially to be the only ones doing it.

"It's not like the whole country is doing it, it's just us, which feels a little bit unfair sometimes."

Leach said the classroom block C which was sealed off was horrible to be in and very cold in winter.

Acting principal Denise Johnson has been at the school for nine years and stepped into the role after former principal Ross Sinclair died in December.

She said Sinclair had spent a decade fighting the ministry for more funding and officials knew millions were needed to fix the leaking roofs.

"The ministry has a company that they engage to do an assessment of a school, and that company determines what are the critical infrastructure needs of the school going forward, which would include things like roofing and aged piping and electrics I suspect, all that sort of really important stuff.

"That company assessed the school as needing $10 million - We weren't given $10 million."

Principal 'beyond angry' at mould in eight Hutt Valley High School classrooms
Photo credit: Supplied

Johnson said the school had provided numerous reports to ministry officials asking for money and had never got the amounts needed.

She said there finally appeared to be action but it had taken a crisis to get it.

"I'm beyond angry I'm upset.

"You know, we're just we're tenants of this property. Ross Sinclair, especially, did the very, very best he could for his community.

"But you can't do what you can't do without the money that you're not given."

Year 12 student Caleb Robinson was okay with working from home but worried how long it might go on.

"I think not knowing how long it's going to be is a little bit concerning because it could be for a long time and it's going to disrupt quite a lot of people at school. But I think we're going to be able to learn to work with it."

Johnson said the ministry was considering re-roofing the classroom block to make it watertight, then carrying out a deep clean and regular air testing once it re-opened.

She expected that plan would go down like a lead balloon with staff.

Ministry of Education head of property delivery and infrastructure services Scott Evans told Morning Report the ministry is responding proactively to the issues.

"Our immediate focus is working closely with the school."

However, Johnson said the ministry has known about these issues for years.

She said it's only now that "we're in a crisis" that the ministry's response has been brilliant.

"This was a train wreck waiting to happen," she told Morning Report.

The building in question is 50 years old and ventilation is minimised by the design, being surrounded by other buildings, Evans said.

"It's a combination of a number of components," he said.

Evans said he wouldn't speculate outcomes without all of the facts.

RNZ