Latham Primary School’s oval has been rendered mostly unusable after the failure of its underground sprinkler system, which would cost $1 million to remove because its pipes are coated with asbestos.
Latham Primary Parents and Community Association Secretary Catherine Coe gave evidence to the Legislative Assembly inquiry into the management of ACT school infrastructure on Tuesday (6 July).
She was one of four P&C representatives from three Canberra public schools who gave evidence about hazardous materials, overcrowding and tardy responses from the Education Directorate.
She told the Education and Community Inclusion Committee that the system had been decommissioned and the condition of the oval had deteriorated to the point that students had been forced off-site to nearby playing fields, but this was not always viable or feasible for all children.
Ms Coe said the hazardous nature of the pipes meant they could not be dug up, and the million-dollar removal quote was beyond the capacity of the school and the P&C.
Demountable buildings to house classes could not even be sited on parts of the oval because any earthworks would disturb the asbestos.
The school was also grappling with asbestos and lead paint issues at its community hub building which catered for after-hours care.
Ms Coe said the asbestos flooring has to be removed and its replacement would cost $20,000.
She said progress on dealing with these issues had been painfully slow and she criticised the Education Directorate for not responding quickly enough.
“Directorate communication has been zero with the community,” she said.
The P&C has had to work through the principal, and “everything takes so long”.
Ms Coe said that generally, the Directorate only provided broad and non-committal responses.
This was echoed by other P&C representatives giving evidence, mainly regarding chronic overcrowding.
Harrison with 1,960 students and Majura Primary at 918 are bursting at the seams and need extra classrooms to cope.
Harrison P&C treasurer Shane Merry said multipurpose rooms were being converted to classrooms, and there was a lot of underutilised land on the site.
He said 80 pre-schoolers had to be moved around the corner to the Franklin School at one point because there was not enough room.
“Do they stay at Harrison?” Mr Merry asked.
He said government advice that two other schools would be starting up in the area was not comforting.
“The only way is up for this school,” he said.
He said the P&C was also talking to the government about the ‘diabolical’ traffic situation on Woomera Street, on which there are three schools catering for nearly 3,000 students.
“Parents are in alleyways and townhouse exits trying to get around,” Mr Merry said.
Majura P&C member Penny Edwards said the school had experienced exponential growth, almost double its numbers in the past six years, and faced a further 34 per cent increase in enrolments by 2030, but the Directorate’s approach to planning had been “incremental and piecemeal”.
In 2020, four classes occupied the library and performing arts space because transportable buildings were delayed.
“Parents fear that there is no long-term planning and are suspicious that specialist areas will be converted into classrooms,” Ms Edwards told the committee.
She said the most pressing need was to ensure the school had enough classrooms to house prospective students.
Ms Edwards said the Directorate should not just rely on headcounts but consider the number of classes required at each school.
“This allows planning to reflect the actual number of classrooms that will be needed rather than the maximum number of children a school can house,” she said.
Ms Edwards urged the Directorate to develop multi-year plans for all public schools and a timeframe for investment so there would be less competition for funds and more equitable outcomes.
The P&C representatives said the onus appeared to be on them to engage with the Directorate, and mainly through school principals.
Ms Coe said P&Cs were run by volunteers, and putting the burden on them to engage was the wrong way to do it.
“The burden should be on the Directorate to engage,” she said.