INDICATIONS are strong that Wonthaggi will finally get the funding it needs to build a new senior campus for the local secondary college.
And that funding will be announced within weeks, not months.
We certainly won’t have to wait until the next State Budget in May or be left hanging on yet another election promise, in the run up to the November 2018 State Election.
That was made clear last week, during and after an impromptu meeting of local delegates, led by the Mayor Cr Pam Rothfield and WSC School Council President Geoff Robertson, with the Education Minister James Merlino, in his parliamentary office, organised by Eastern Victoria MP, Harriet Shing.
A united community response to the disappointment of the last budget, when Wonthaggi Secondary College missed out on getting an estimated $31 million ($25m for the school and $6m for the sports stadium), has kept the project firmly on the government’s radar.
A petition signed by almost 3000 people, handed over by the Bass Coast delegation last Tuesday, calling for a new senior campus to be built on a greenfield site in McKenzie Street, was the latest iteration.
But it is believed that the personal intervention of two recent Wonthaggi Secondary College students, Hannah McKittrick and Domonique Brown, as part of last Tuesday’s deputation to Spring Street, has tipped us over the line.
“We just said the standard of education at the school was excellent and the support offered by teachers exceptional. Really the only thing that was needed was infrastructure that reflected the quality of the education already being provided by the school,” said Dom Brown, a second year law student at Monash University.
A third year Bachelor of Fine Arts student at the VCA, Hannah McKittrick, had a similar message, adding it was the responsibility of government to support its state schools, especially in regional areas, with appropriate facilities.
When the announcement does come, and we’re told it’s only a matter of finding a date in the Premier Daniel Andrew’s busy calendar, the town will also get the high-ball sports stadium it is seeking.
Wonthaggi must be the only town of its size in the state without a multi-court, indoor sports stadium. An imminent funding announcement is expected to rectify that situation.
Ms Shing described the meeting with the Minister and particularly the key role played in the delegation by the two former Wonthaggi Secondary College students as both “significant and positive in making a new senior campus for the Wonthaggi Secondary College a reality”.
“For the Minister to hear directly from two so impressive young advocates as Hannah and Dom was profoundly important, I believe, and also for them to be the ones to hand over the petition.
“You couldn’t have had two better spokespersons on behalf of the school and the community.
“I know this has been some time coming but I have been working on it since I came to the Parliament in 2014. Even before that and it has been an absolute privilege to work alongside the community.
“Where you’re trying to get funding for a project of this magnitude and where the need continues to grow over time, it can seem as if it’s taking too long but there are a lot of challenges,” she said.
“But for the community to come together like it has, through the school council, and we saw that again last week with the Bass Coast Shire Council and the local business and tourism association right behind it, it sends a very strong message about the importance of this project.”
The delegation also included WSC Acting Principal Darren Parker and Wonthaggi Business and Tourism Association Secretary Terry Earl.
“I have relied heavily on the community’s support when I have been advocating on their behalf, as the only government member in Gippsland, and that support extends well beyond Wonthaggi to Phillip Island and the rest of Bass Coast. Their support for this project has been enormous.
“And I want everyone who signed that petition to know that it was handed over by two fantastic young advocates for this community.”
Ms Shing said Hannah and Dom were shining examples of the standard of education available at Wonthaggi Secondary College and the commitment of the staff, despite the parlous state of the facility, and both the minister and Ms Shing stressed how grateful they were to the staff for their on-going commitment to their students and their professionalism.
“What we have to do now is to bring the standard of the facilities up to the standard of the education that is already being delivered there.”
Ms Shing acknowledged the comments made by her Upper House colleague, Melina Bath, during the week that the senior campus project should be funded in the next State Budget, but Ms Shing is adamant the community will not have to wait that long.
“The Minister has visited the school and met with the community before about this. He is well aware of what’s required and personally, I don’t want to wait until the next budget for a commitment when there’s a crying need for it now. It’s also important that we build on the momentum for positive change that the school and the community has already been able to achieve.”
Ms Shing said her ambitions for Wonthaggi and Bass Coast went beyond the secondary college to a major upgrade in sporting facilities as well.
“I have also been working on funding for the high-ball stadium with Katherine Garnham and her committee.”
Ms Shing said the government recognised the importance of excellent education and sporting facilities in creating the right environment for young people, their sporting teams and clubs and the role they played.
The Eastern Victoria MP could not say last week when a funding announcement might be made but she was convinced it would come well before the next State Budget.
Last Sunday, while opening the new performing arts space for the Wonthaggi Theatrical Group, Ms Shing said she believed an announcement was imminent.
“I have put in as much work as I can and while I got a ‘fail’ in your newspaper for my efforts last time, and I accept that, there is not a Minister in the government who doesn’t know about Wonthaggi and what is needed there. The Education Minister and the others are under no illusions about the importance of this project as a matter of urgency to the people of Wonthaggi and Bass Coast.”
Acting Principal of the Wonthaggi Secondary College, Darren Parker, described the day as an extremely positive one for the region.
“We went up there to handover the petition and I can say that all of the people we spoke to were overwhelmingly positive. But also to have the opportunity of some extra time with the Minister was really valuable. He has a clear understanding of the project and I felt that we certainly hadn’t been forgotten after what happened earlier in the year.
“In the time that we’ve had since then, we haven’t been idle. We’ve gone on and completed our plans, as we have been encouraged to do, and they are ready for a tender process should funding be announced.
“And I wouldn’t like anyone to think we got any greater understanding of when that might be, only that we got a very positive and encouraging response to handing over the petition.”
Mr Parker said the group was offered the opportunity to meet with the Minister at short notice.
“It was the day that the Assisted Dying debate was going on and Mr Merlino has been playing a key role in that so to get half an hour of his time on that day was no small feat.
“And I couldn’t have been prouder of what our ex-students Dom Brown and Hannah McKittrick had to say on behalf of the school. They were exceptional.
“Because of the unexpected nature of the meeting, it was completely unscripted but it was all the better for that really. Dom and Han just said they were proud of what they had achieved at Wonthaggi and the fact that the excellent education they had received here has allowed them to go on to their chosen areas of tertiary study.
“It was a particularly feel-good moment for me.
“But what I would also like to say is that if there has been one good thing to come out of the disappointment we had earlier in the year, it’s the way this has become a true community-wide project mow.
“And as evidence of that, to have the Mayor Cr Rothfield, Geoff (Robertson) from the school council, Terry (Earl) from the business association and our two former students to hand over the petition I thought was very significant. It’s clearly a community project in every sense.”
Bass MLA Brian Paynter and Eastern Victoria MLC Melina Bath both received copies of the petition on the steps of State Parliament last Tuesday as arranged and both urged the government to fund the project as soon as possible.