Ministry of Education accused of 'stealing' Taihape teaching farm

The teaching farm, once owned by the college and now leased by Taihape Area School.
The teaching farm, once owned by the college and now leased by Taihape Area School. Photo credit: Supplied

By Phil Pennington of RNZ

Government officials are being accused of stealing a farm bought by a central North Island town for their schoolchildren to learn agriculture.

Taihape people established the teaching farm on 12 hectares next to Taihape College 30 years ago but the Ministry of Education has taken it and put it in the landbank for Treaty settlements, and the school can now only lease it.

The Ombudsman is looking at whether to investigate.

"It's very unfortunate. I think you could effectively say that the community asset has been stolen by the Education Ministry," Rangitīkei National MP Ian McKelvie said.

"And of course, it's gotten into the process now where it's very difficult to get it back from."

The town's high hopes have turned into an exhausting 17-year-long fight between country and city, going on under the radar between bureaucrats and those townspeople who believe they've been ripped off.

Jean Cherry, a retired nurse who lived in Taihape for 36 years, is one. Her father-in-law Jim Cherry sold the block cheaply to the college in 1989.

He had a "mighty feeling for the town", she said.

"He wanted the best use [of it], and I think he would be aghast at how that little piece of land now looks.

"I think he would probably use some very, very strong expletives, and say bloody politicians," she said.

At least three Crown Ministers or Associate Ministers have been involved, along with the Education Secretary in early 2020, and four iwi are caught up in it, too.

Trevor Mallard, as Education Minister in 2004, promised the farm would "be retained as the property of the new area school".

Dave Randell was Taihape College principal from 1988 to 1994.
Dave Randell was Taihape College principal from 1988 to 1994. Photo credit: RNZ

Dave Randell, Taihape College principal from 1988 to 1994, underscores that: "It wasn't funded from one cent of operational grant. The ministry did not own it, at all," he said.

Instead, when Taihape College closed, the ministry took over the farm and a decade later, though the school was still using it, disposed of it as surplus to educational requirements, selling it to Land Information New Zealand which landbanked it.

Mallard told RNZ in a statement he agreed the school owned the farm.

He would not comment on whether he should intervene. In fact, he has already tried, with current Education Minister Chris Hipkins.

Hipkins told RNZ that the school, the council and local iwi all supported things as they were now.

Iwi declined to comment, and the ministry has issued short statements, stressing students still use the farm.

Yet the board of the new Taihape Area School was still fighting to get the farm back up until early last year, putting their case to MPs and Education Secretary Iona Holsted in February.

Their appeal to the Ombudsman may still bear fruit.

Hipkins said the ministry was waiting to hear whether there would be a formal investigation into the disposal process, and the ministry said "it is important to the school that they get an independent view".

Taihape Area School principal Craig Dredge and his board are striking a conciliatory stance. They were "partnering" with the ministry, and having to lease the farm had no impact on agricultural education, Dredge said.

The principal for a decade up to last year, Richard McMillan, begs to differ.

"The farm was absolutely central to curriculum," he said.

"But in terms of development, money was invested in the farm just to keep it ticking over" when had they owned it, it would have been key in development plans.

Handshake in the street

It is a long way from where it began, with a handshake in 1989 between a local farmer and college principal Dave Randell.

Randell had written in a newsletter about the problem of so many students sitting on buses for hours to go to Whānganui for farming lessons.

"I happened to be walking down the main street one day, and this gentleman called Eddie Cherry approached me ... from the back of his pocket, took out this scrap bit of paper, I thought it was - it was actually the rates value - and he said, the land's rateable value is $85,000. I will give it to you for $45,000. What do you think?

"And I said, 'You know, I need to go to a board, and we need lawyers'.

"Basically his attitude was, 'You do that ... this is a gentleman's agreement, you either want the land or you don't'.

"And so the middle the main street, in Taihape, I shook his hand and thinking, 'Oh, my God, I just now owe $45,000'."

Randell needn't have worried.

A couple of big donations from a couple of trusts took care of it, and lawyers did the paperwork.

Next, locals organised a stock drive for animals.

"I quite remember the figure - 384 in-lamb ewes we had. I think we were given a pig, one cow. I think someone wanted to donate a donkey."

They ended up with a dozen pedigree Red Poll cattle.

The town pitched in boots and all, such as trucker John Remus, now of Tauranga.

"We were asked to move a bit of dirt or a tractor," Remus said.

"We carted quite a bit of stock in and out of there, a dozen lambs, two or three cattle. And that was never ever charged for.

"There would have been carpenters, there would have been plumbers and fencers, and all sorts of people that chipped in to do their bit."

They did it because the farm was "fantastic" for the children, he said.

The woolshed was converted to double as a classroom.

Year 9 students planted acacias that they harvested in Year 13 to pay for school trips.

They planted pine trees.

"Kids learned it, they ran it," Randell said.

A large proportion of the college's 700 students were involved on the farm, schooled for years by teacher Ann Abernethy.

"Those courses set them up very well for the future careers within the agriculture industry, and particularly in our own community and district," Abernethy said.

'We were flying blind'

However, by 2004, the closure of Taihape College was looming; and when schools close, their assets transfer to the ministry unless they're held in a separate trust.

Dave Randell and his board had failed to put the farm into a trust immediately.

"It was pure and simple, a naive fact that none of us knew these things - and rue the day now," Randell said.

He was a new principal, grappling with the advent of Tomorrow's Schools.

"We should have got some support. I always thought the ministry should be there to help.

"No one gave us any advice or information, we were all flying blind."

The board chair in 2004, Marlene Harris, said the ministry asked them to prove they owned the farm.

"I did that," she said. "It was in black and white, we had all the information there."

Read a letter from the Ministry of Education to Marlene Harris here.

Businesspeople were set up to join the trust. "And next thing, it was all stopped," Harris said.

It was too late.

"I was there when we were fighting to get the farm into a trust so that it would always be available for the students in the future," Abernethy said.

"We were told that if we pushed that ahead, we would be following an illegal path."

What had been Dave Randell's dream became, years later, Richard McMillan's burden.

McMillan began in 2010 as principal of the new Taihape Area School and retired a decade later with two major problems still hovering over him - the farm's ownership, and a series of majorbuilding problems at the new school built on a small plot in town.

The farm itself was "a crucial resource", he said.

"It was essential. Not many schools have farms - it made it a point of difference," McMillan said.

They rekindled horticulture programmes and junior students planted crops.

But they were held back, he said.

"The fact that it wasn't considered to be owned by the school did have an impact because the school looked seriously at resourcing, and decisions were made not to spend too much money on developing some of the fiscal resources of the farm."

That included not adding toilets at the woolshed though it needed some.

"There's a whole lot of jobs that needed doing."

At the same time, McMillan was grappling with leaky classrooms, with the ministry taking years to decide how to fix them.

He finds it thick with irony that the officials who in 2017 were pressured to set up a lease on the farm for the school were at the same time telling the minister in a briefing RNZ has obtained, that the ministry was exploring opportunities to develop agricultural education with Taihape Area School and in the wider region.

Had the school still owned the farm, "because we had the right people in place, we absolutely would have included the development of the farm in the school development plans", he said.

Taihape Area School.
Taihape Area School. Photo credit: Google Maps

Craig Dredge began as Taihape Area School a few months ago, coming from a stint heading a school in Australia.

"There are sensitivities around this but ultimately, most of us 'locals' are on the same page," Dredge said in a statement, having declined an interview.

"With the school being a public entity, ownership of land-based assets does not impact on our ability to access the farm or to grow our agricultural/horticultural offerings."

Ministry staff recently toured the farm "to gain 'real life' experience of our facilities", Dredge said.

They went to the Ombudsman in 2020 - before he began - "simply to gain closure of potential barriers in our partnerships (iwi, community, and Ministry of Education) - as we also acknowledge that land use and access does not necessitate actual ownership".

"But at the end of the day, we do not expect our business of preparing young people for their future careers will be impacted at all."

Dave Randell knows better now what to do with school assets; in many years as principal at Tauranga's 2000-student Otumoetai College he and his board learned to protect what was theirs, but it was difficult, he said.

Poor record-keeping was common in schools, and at the ministry, too, in his experience, and should not have decided what happened to the farm that Taihape township created. "I don't think it's fair. And I don't think it's right.

"You own something - in good faith, people should have adhered to that and just said , 'Right, OK, we've made a mistake. We can't find the paperwork. We know what happened. We've got enough people to verify what did'.

"There's a thing called trust.

"And when a Minister of Education many years ago acknowledges the fact that, yeah, it's yours, why change?"

This is the first of two reports. Read the second part here.