Education Ministry confirms pause to new classroom builds amid cost-cutting and reprioritisation

Principal Mike Newell said it did not make sense to pause the six-years-long project when "ours is at the point of final design, right down to the light switches".
Principal Mike Newell said it did not make sense to pause the six-years-long project when "ours is at the point of final design, right down to the light switches". Photo credit: Getty Images

By Phil Pennington for RNZ

More than 100 new classroom builds are in doubt in a cost-cutting exercise that's already forced the Secretary of Education to apologise, following the Minister's intervention.

The Education Ministry has confirmed to RNZ that it has paused major projects at 20 primary schools and colleges due to rising costs, changing roll growth forecasts or the reprioritisation of scarce funds.

About 300 new classrooms for 6600 children were promised in last year's Budget.

But now 63 rooms at nine Auckland schools, and 52 elsewhere, plus two whole teaching blocks, have been placed in limbo.

Education Minister Erica Stanford blamed the previous government and officials:

"It has become clear to me that there is a pattern of raised expectations among schools, a failure to deliver on these expectations, teamed with inadequate communication between the ministry and schools," she told RNZ on Thursday.

"I have spent the last three months since coming into office determining the size and scale of the problem that has been left to this government and working at pace to find a solution."

'The buildings are shot'

At Invercargill's James Hargest College, 14 classrooms are now in doubt.

Principal Mike Newell said it did not make sense to pause the six-years-long project when "ours is at the point of final design, right down to the light switches".

"It has to get built - it's just a matter of when, because the buildings are shot," he said.

"We've had ceilings collapse on children, we've got a special needs unit, some of our most vulnerable kids, has a wall of water come down when the rain goes a certain way."

The pause initiated in September 2023, was "while we explore more cost-effective options or because the expected roll growth has not occurred or forecast growth has changed", ministry head of property Sam Fowler said.

"A small number had also been paused while we determine their relative priority to other investments to make sure that we are responding to the highest and most immediate needs of our schools."

At Kaipara College west of Auckland, roll forecast changes and rising costs have hit its long-awaited technology and arts centre.

In an online post, the school told families: "We will continue to fight for what we have been promised.

"Your voices have been heard in Wellington and we have received an apology from the Secretary of Education for the way the decision and the communication about it was handled by ministry staff."

The minister had "reached out after hearing our collective disappointment", it said in an online post in December.

Stanford said she stepped in to tell the Secretary of Education to apologise after hearing from the school and a briefing from officials.

"It became apparent that the way the project had been managed and the way in which the school had been communicated with did not meet my expectations, nor the expectations of the ministry. The Secretary of Education subsequently sent a letter of apology to the school."

The ministry declined to release a copy of the apology to RNZ.

Kaipara College said it was in ongoing talks with officials and no decisions had yet been made.

Stanford said straight after the Kaipara case, "I asked the ministry about the number of schools that may be in a similar situation".

Schools 'unsure' of Education Ministry's priorities

However, Newell said no one seemed to know what the priorities were or been able to sit down with the new minister.

"So that's really frustrating that we have a new education minister in there, and we're unsure of what the priorities are."

The ministry has to tell Stanford by next Friday how it intends to make savings of 7.5 percent of its budget.

The ministry told RNZ that capital expenditure was not part of the 7.5 percent baseline savings exercise.

In Marlborough, cost overruns are the problem at a massive project to merge two colleges and an intermediate. It had failed in its year-long attempt to find savings to bring it under the $170 million forecast, officials said, in what was initially a $60m build.

At Papamoa College, the new principal last year said he was "in heaven" and the ministry had been "superb" over its projects; but now its second gym and wharenui teaching block are on hold due to reprioritisation.

The frontage of Ashburton College has looked like a building site for a long time. That may drag on, as the third stage of its $60m redevelopment - a teaching block, staffroom and library - is on hold, capping years of doubts that have swirled around it.

RNZ approached all these schools for comment.