The schools building waste

So we now have a report on all those school halls and libraries so hastily constructed in the past year: BER waste exposed by taskforce. Interpretation seems to be of the glass-half-full to glass-half-empty kind, depending on whether you’re an Abbott apparatchik or a Gillard groupie. “Not as bad as everyone thought” does seem a fair assessment, however, even in that Oz account of it.

The report said the majority of the 254 complaints raised with the taskforce, representing 2.7 per cent of school projects, raised "very valid" concerns about the program’s ability to deliver value for money and the decision-making process.

It doesn’t justify Tony Abbott’s “Certainly, everywhere you look there is example after example of scandalous rip-offs.”

Undoubtedly, however, it shows what asses the NSW Department of Education people have been.

It revealed that costs for BER projects run by the NSW government were easily the highest in the nation, with public school projects typically much more expensive than those in the independent sector, where schools had more control over spending. The report blamed cost overruns around the nation on the time constraints and the scale of the BER, imposed by the federal government’s design of the program as a quick-acting economic stimulus.

My friend John, an old colleague of mine from Dip Ed 1965 right through to the recent past, has an interesting anecdote on my post So, Julia: a debate on the economy:

‘Waste’ in the school funding program : a comment from experience.

State education bureaucracies are reluctant to decentralise decision making, whatever they may say in public. Schools in the private sector in Victoria are rejoicing in having been given funds for school-specific projects, decided on and managed by the schools themselves. I drive by one such project often. The school community is delighted.

The Victorian Education Department could not bring itself to allow individual schools to define and manage their own building projects. It set up an elaborate sub-bureaucracy that came up with a limited range of options. Some schools were given things they didn’t want or need but felt they had to accept because the money was on offer.

Every school has a building project in mind. The Department should have asked for submissions (a Principal and School Council could knock up a submission in a few days) and should have allocated the money to allow for local management. Everyone would have been happy, everyone a winner. But no, Head Office knows best.

During my own Principalship I was pleased to secure a so-called ‘Keating Grant’, an amount of $500,000 to allow old schools to tart themselves up. The staff identified 32 minor improvements which included extension of two staffrooms, that kind of thing. We got 30 of the jobs done. We could have achieved 32 except for Public Works taking $37,000 as a ‘project management fee’. How frigging stupid was that! I thought that Public Works existed to render ‘public works’ but some smart person got the idea that PWD should be able to show ‘cost recovery’. So public money got shifted around and we had to forgo the final 2 projects for the sake of a book entry.

I don’t blame Labor for the shortcomings of the education grant money. The blame lies squarely with the state Education Departments. Look no further. The ‘Daddy knows best’ syndrome remains strong. The reluctance to trust local schools and their communities is still the norm.