By: Kirsty Johnston
The Government’s information watchdog has ordered the Ministry of Education to explain itself after giving a “frankly confusing” response about questions over mouldy schools.
It comes two years after the initial request was sent to officials by the Herald as part of an investigation into shoddy school infrastructure.
The series revealed a raft of schools with leaky buildings that were draughty, mouldy and damp. Some schools had problems with rats. Others had been air tested and had closed classrooms because of high spore counts, which could be hazardous.
In its July 2015 request, the Herald had sought a list of the approximately 30 schools then-Associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye had announced needed “major redevelopment” because of infrastructure issues.
In August 2015, the ministry sent back a 30-row table with 14 school names, and 16 “withheld” under a section of the Official Information Act designed to allow officials to carry out commercial activities without prejudice.
Arguing it was in the public interest for parents to know if their school was in such a bad state it would need to be rebuilt, the Herald complained to the Ombudsman that the names should be released.
After eight months, in May 2016, the ministry told now-retired Ombudsman Ron Paterson the 30-name list did not actually exist. Three names were pending. The final 13 names on the list had not been confirmed at the time of the Herald‘s request, it said.
“In hindsight, the format of our response… may have created the misunderstanding that at any one time 30 specific schools have been approved for redevelopment… this wasn’t the case.”
The Herald then told the Ombudsman’s office it was ridiculous that the ministry had chosen to send a list acting as though it were withholding names, when really it was not.
Subsequently, another Ombudsman, Leo Donnelly, met officials from the ministry’s Education Infrastructure Service to ascertain whether there was a proper basis to investigate further, specifically whether the ministry did hold the information.
In a letter to the Herald dated September 25, 2017, Donnelly said he was finally satisfied it did not.
The way it constructed the table gave an “incorrect impression” that there was a definitive list of schools that had been identified, he said.
“I have advised the Ministry that in all the circumstances I can understand why [the Herald] was left with an incorrect perception of the true situation,” he said.
“The table created to respond to your request, with 13 rows marked ‘withheld’, was, quite frankly, confusing. Together with the Ministry’s stated reliance on section 9(2)(i) of the OIA, it gave every impression that a definitive list existed.”
Donnelly said instead of refusing the request, the ministry should have explained at the time that there was no certainty as to which schools would be redeveloped.
He asked the ministry’s head of infrastructure Kim Shannon to explain the situation herself in writing, and to confirm the number of major redevelopments since Kaye’s initial announcement.
Shannon wrote to the Herald on September 27.
“I accept the choice of a table with 16 rows marked ‘withheld’ was confusing and created an incorrect impression that a definitive list existed,” she said.
Since the 2013 announcement around 34 schools had been approved for major redevelopment, she said.
The ministry had committed or approved around $600 million of spending for the major redevelopments, twice as much as it initially set aside for the work.
One of the worst schools and the first in the Herald series – Northland College – was among those set to get new buildings.
The Ombudsman has now closed the case.
The list that wasn’t: a timeline
- September 24, 2013 – Associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye says the Ministry of Education has created a fund of $300 million over six years to assist approximately 30 schools with major redevelopments.
- July 8, 2015 – Herald requests the names of the approximately 30 schools on the list
- August 4, 2015 – Ministry of Education sends a 30-row table to the Herald with 16 names “withheld”
- May 19, 2016 – Ombudsman finds that the 30-row list did not exist, instead there were only ever 14 schools approved
- May 26, 2016 – The ministry says it realises “in hindsight” its response may have created a misunderstanding
- Also in May 2016 – The Herald indicates its dissatisfaction with the ministry’s behaviour to the Ombudsman, who decides to meet with officials to ascertain if re-investigation is necessary
- September 25, 2017 – Ombudsman decides not to reinvestigate but says the ministry’s response was “confusing” and asks them to better explain the situation
- September 27, 2017 – Ministry writes to the Herald accepting its decision to use a table and “withhold” rows was confusing.
Source: NZ Herald