Judicial review on school maintenance fund delayed

A court hearing over integrated schools being left out of a $396million funding package for upgrading state school properties was delayed for several weeks.

Last year, papers were filed in the High Court seeking a judicial review of the Education Minister’s decision. A hearing was initially scheduled to be held in early February.

However, a preliminary hearing is now scheduled to take place in early March, said New Zealand Catholic Education Office associate chief executive Paul Ferris.

“The Crown Law office asked to extend the time for the hearing, while they sourced some documents,” Mr Ferris said.

He said that “a great deal of work has gone on during the period of February, with information exchanged from both sides”.

Mr Ferris said that there won’t be any outcome at the preliminary hearing. “The legal teams will have full disclosure and put their arguments.”

The $396million funding package was announced in late 2019, but applied only to state schools. It was part of a wider package of infrastructure spending.

The Education Minister defended the move when questioned by NZ Catholic in 2019, saying that integrated schools were already getting more than $65million to upgrade and modernise buildings, under existing policy for the following year, and that the proprietors could also charge attendance dues. The Association of Proprietors of Integrated Schools responded by saying that, if other state schools are going to get double their funding in this regard, integrated schools should too, because of an agreement with the Crown that they be treated the same way.

Last year, Education Minister Chris Hipkins told media he was hopeful of finding a solution early in 2021. “I remain supportive, in principle, of finding a solution in this area; however, our challenge is being able to fund a solution, given the impact of Covid-19 on our country,” he told Radio New Zealand. Mr Hipkins said late last year that the remainder of the Covid Response and Recovery Fund had been set aside in case of a future virus-related crisis. “Therefore, any initiative to accelerate upgrades of state-integrated schools will now need to be considered as part of decision-making for Budget 2021.” A few days before the preliminary hearing, Mr Ferris said, “We remain committed to the principle that state integrated schools were to be maintained in an equivalent manner to state schools, and, no matter where the funding is generated from, the Government has an obligation to fund our schools in the same way”.

Mr Ferris told NZ Catholic in early February that “the minister has not yet reached out to make the appointment he had indicated he would offer late last year, so we are proceeding with the legal challenge, unless there is an indication of a desire to settle”.

“Covid responsibilities continue to focus the minister,” Mr Ferris added.

“This makes the wider education sector appear to take second place to the challenges created by his duties with Covid management.”

A statement of defence from the Education Minister was filed last year, in response to the court action. The NZCEO indicated last year that, after negotiations, the Ministry of Education “recommended the settlement we had worked towards”.

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Michael Otto

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