How a stolen pencil case led to a 10-month legal battle

A west Auckland mum says she feels isolated from her school community after a dispute with her local school ended up in the media, and she became known as the $30 headphone parent.

Ameria Gilbert says a simple inquiry into a spate of missing school equipment at Whenuapai School escalated into legal action over many months before being aired in the media.

She's reluctantly telling her story, wanting to restore the mana to her whanau.

In November last year when equipment went missing, Ms Gilbert asked for a theft management report from the school principal. She wanted to know how the school was dealing with the alleged thefts. Following an email exchange with the school she was contacted by police asking whether she wanted to report a stolen pencil case. The school had contacted the police, leaving Ms Gilbert shocked and feeling bullied.

From here Ms Gilbert called upon a family friend with experience in boards and management. Tupara Morrison believed it was a misunderstanding and was confident he could clear up the mishap. Mr Morrison told The Hui the process has been "terrible. It's been a long, arduous, I mean nearly 12 months its gone on and on and on."

Whenuapai School principal Raewyn Matthys-Morris referred the matter to the school's board of trustees, chaired by Kylie Haskins. Mr Morrison again thought it would be cleared up immediately once the board of trustees dealt with it, but he says it wasn't to be.

"It felt like we were going from the frying pan into the fire."

Ameria Gilbert.
Ameria Gilbert. Photo credit: The Hui

Ms Gilbert, who is from Te Arawa, reached out to her mother Zella Briar to figure out how to resolve the standoff using a tikanga Māori framework. They asked to meet with the school board under the guidance of their kaumatua.

Ms Gilbert had previously raised concerns with the school about the lack of diversity on its board, but was optimistic the board would engage with her whanau in a hui to resolve the issues. Instead the board hired a lawyer. Ms Haskins personally funded the lawyer to deal with Mr Morrison and Ms Gilbert.

Ms Haskins later resigned as chairperson, and told The Hui she engaged a lawyer because "the Ministry of Education was not forthcoming in supporting and engaging".

Following her resignation and three others, a new board was elected and a limited statutory manager appointed to the school. The new board has since met with Mr Morrison and Ms Gilbert, and an apology from the school was accepted.

By the end of 2017 this small decile 10 primary in west Auckland had clocked up 10 complaints. Included in the complaints were concerns about bullying and poor leadership.

The school roll dropped from 475 pupils five years ago to 339 this year, despite the suburb being described as fast-growing with major housing developments underway. The Hui spoke to two families who withdrew their children from Whenuapai School following allegations of bullying and poor communications with the former school board chairperson.

The experience has motivated Ms Gilbert and Mr Tupara to create a diversity programme for school boards, and Ms Gilbert has sent off a submission for the current reform of Tomorrow's Schools.

The Hui approached limited statutory manager Alan Curtis for an interview, but he told The Hui in an email he "does not consider it in the interests of the school's students to keep the dialogue focused on what has happened in the past". He said his decisions were not taken lightly, but are what he considers best for the school.

In June this year the new chairman of the school board Mike Leonard sent an apology letter to Mr Morrison acknowledging the unfair treatment and their legal fees were repaid. It was acknowledged that theft management report provided to Ms Gilbert by the school was "inadequate".

Mr Leonard added the previous board prevented the principal Raewyn Matthys-Morris from providing Mr Morrison and Ms Gilbert with more useful information.

The Hui