Wonthaggi ‘gutted’ by school funding snub

WE’RE gutted, upset, angry, agitated and even sick to the stomach.
Never has there been such an out-pouring of emotion about a government decision as there has been in the past week about the State Government’s failure to fund the development of a new senior secondary college in Wonthaggi.
It’s a lost opportunity that would have been worth $31 million to Bass Coast – $25 million for a new school and $6 million for a new indoor sports stadium.
Both gone now, without funding in Tuesday’s State Budget.
Planning was at such an advanced state of readiness for the project that work could have started in February next year.
The new school would have been opened in 2019, just-in-time for ballooning student numbers, up by 60 per cent next year in Year 12 alone.
It would also have defused “sensitive” comparisons with school’s nearest private rival, Newhaven College, which is set to combine year levels at a whole new facility in 2018.
But ultimately it’s the damage being done to the future of our kids that’s upset people most.
And at a school council meeting in Wonthaggi last night, the members of the council decided that the response to this latest disappointment will be different.
They are determined that the needs of local students will continue to get a high profile… until the project is funded.
And they are urging the community to get involved.
“This is personal,” said Wonthaggi Secondary College Acting Principal Darren Parker.
“We’re not hoping the project will be funded, we’re expecting it to be funded.”
Dee Connell, president of the Wonthaggi Business and Tourism Association, has already pledged her group’s support for their more aggressive campaign.

Social media sites went into meltdown over the funding failure when the Budget was handed down last Tuesday with 28,000 people ‘reached’, 103 ‘shares’ and 123 comments on the Sentinel-Times’ Facebook page alone.
Top responses included:
• Marlene Talbot: The Penguin Parade is much more important than our kids’ education, what a joke! How could anyone justify this decision?
• Kelly Hamilton: Wonthaggi gets nothing. No funding for a new high school, no sub-regional hospital, minimal housing, court house with no disabled access etc. The list goes on, we miss out!
• Sheryl Spencer: What an absolute disgrace! The building is falling down, the teachers are, on the whole, brilliant, trying to educate kids who want to learn, in the most appalling conditions – what has to happen to get funding? The building collapsing on some students? Totally outraged!
• Sharon Miller: Considering it’s the only public high school for a large area, this is disgusting
Bass Coast Mayor Cr Pam Rothfield, community leaders, local Liberal MP Brian Paynter, the State Treasurer Tim Pallas, the Education Minister James Merlino, who offered his personal encouragement last year, and Eastern Victoria Labor MP Harriet Shing; they’ve all provided reactions, explanations and comments (see reports inside).
But the school community has felt the disappointment most, and they’re the ones that have had to pick up the pieces this week.
Last Friday, some of the members of the school’s building committee; including Acting Principal Darren Parker, Acting Campus Principal Marg O’Donnell, Campus Manager Phil Hughes, Maintenance Manager Darren Martin and Council President Geoff Robertson, met with the Sentinel-Times and were on the verge of tears as they described how devastated they felt.
“I haven’t known how to react,” Mr Parker said.
“I offered a measured response to begin with because I didn’t want to say something I might regret afterwards.
“But I’ve thought about it now and we don’t just want to take this decision and roll over.
“It’s personal.
“Everyone here on our local planning committee, who’ve been working on this project, we’re all taking this personally because our kids go here, or have gone here. But it’s not just our kids who’ll miss out now. We’re only a snap-shot of the community.
“Wonthaggi Secondary College is really Bass Coast Secondary College and beyond our professional lives, we’re part of this community and we have a right to expect better for our kids.
“We’re gutted and deflated but we’re not just going to say ‘oh well’ and get on with it. We’re really hurting over this.”
“Our plans, they’re so exciting,” said Geoff Robertson.
“We’d got to the stage where we were saying this door’s got to go here and the walls should be this colour,” he said.
“But because it’s not in the Latrobe Valley or down at Geelong it doesn’t get funded. Take a look at a map of where school works are needed and where they’ve been funded and you’ll see what I mean.
“We also thought about asking the kids to dress up as penguins when they come to school in the hope they’d get noticed.”
But Geoff says his biggest disappointment of all is that Wonthaggi has become a political football.
“Both sides have promised and we’ve not been given a zac. It rips the guts right out of you to get another no,” he said.
“And, yesterday Marg (O’Donnell) and I had to go down to a meeting in Melbourne (with the Victorian School Building Authority) to continue planning for the new school,” Mr Parker said.
“We even signed off on stage two (design) yesterday.
“It was pretty tough but we were encouraged to stay positive and to keep up the momentum (of preparations). They also told us that there were 40 schools looking for money and only 20 were funded.
“They said that ours was the biggest project,” he said, as explanation for why it wasn’t funded.
These sentiments have been echoed by the State Treasurer, Education Minister and key Eastern Victoria Labor MP Harriet Shing; all of whom gave personal explanations about why Wonthaggi missed out.
Mr Parker said the building committee would still finalise the plans to tender stage, to be ready for funding, but he fears hopes for a $6 million sports stadium have been dashed.
“We’ll be ‘shovel-ready’ by the end of the year,” he said.
School staff have unloaded on the decision and the whole process.
“It’s an issue of equity. We’re offering a quality education here but these decisions are highly symbolic: they say you’re not valued, that Bass Coast kids aren’t valued; especially after the way expectations were built up. It was an opportunity to change the notion of teaching and everyone was ready for it,” said Acting Campus Principal Marg O’Donnell.
“I’m also appalled at the process of informing schools. There was no phone call, nothing. We had to quickly try and decipher the budget papers to see if we got anything. To be put under that emotional pressure while trying to run a school… They don’t appreciate what it’s like to try and run a school while that’s happening.
“And it’s a highly sensitive time at the moment (with Newhaven developing new facilities),” she said.
They’re gutted. We’re all gutted.
(*Note: Cr Rothfield is saying all the right things now but back on February 15, 2017 she was one of five councillors who voted 5:4 against completing the Shared Facilities Fund submission and allocating up to $2 million to the project).

5 Page report on Wonthaggi’s 2017 State Budget shock in this weeks edition of the South Gippsland Sentinel-Times. To subscribe to our digital edition: https://sgst.com.au/ezine-publication/