Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional councillors have backflipped on a previous decision to support the proposed Bungendore High School site.
In a move described by NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell as unprecedented, the incoming council voted to overturn its in-principle support for the controversial Bungendore Park site.
The site was championed by former NSW Deputy Premier and Member for Monaro John Barilaro but has been strongly criticised by local group ‘Save Bungendore Park’. Its members argue the community has been split in half by the decision to use the park.
The recent council decision has further disillusioned many Bungendore residents, who fear it will lead to further delays in constructing the much-needed school expected to cater for up to 500 students.
Councillors voted six-to-one at the 27 January council meeting in favour of relinquishing support for the current site. Three councillors abstained on the night, and there was one absence.
Of the six councillors to vote in favour of overturning the previous decision, three ran on the Labor Party ticket, one on the Greens, and two were independents including new mayor Kenrich Winchester.
The only councillor to vote against the motion was Mareeta Grundy, who urged her fellow councillors to rethink their decision to help prevent another generation of Bungendore children from growing up without a local high school.
“I want Bungendore to have a high school. If we don’t go with this current proposal, we will not get a high school in the foreseeable future,” Cr Grundy said.
“We will be taking things back to square one with the Department of Education. They’ll have to find the funding again, and that takes years of discussion, assessments and planning. That could take up to five years alone.
“That in my mind is not in the interest and greater good of the community.”
Cr Grundy remained unconvinced by the prospect of an alternate site and worried the decision jeopardised years of work to bring the school to fruition.
“We don’t know when or if that funding will ever come back if this current proposal is quashed,” she said.
“All the funding with the Department of Education is around the current proposal. They can’t just wrap that money up and put it aside and reapply it to a possible, alternate proposal.
“At least another, possibly two if not three generations of Bungendore kids will miss out.”
The Bungendore High School Action Group revealed its devastation with the result, arguing it was not “based on any consultation with the wider community”.
Cr Grundy said whichever side residents were on, local children and their education had the most to lose in this argument.
“Unless you have walked in the shoes of families who have gone through six years of their child’s education and watched them get on buses as early as 6:45 in the morning and not get back as late as 5:15 in the evening… then you don’t understand what’s at jeopardy.”
One of the decision’s supporters, Councillor John Preston, said the complexity of the issues surrounding the site made a Term 1, 2023 start “all but impossible”.
“The issues covered in this [business] paper are only some of the issues yet to be tackled to deliver on this divisive proposal. When those other issues are considered, persisting with this proposal will see a high school for Bungendore postponed for many years to come,” Cr Preston said.
“Our position will be clear and our commitment to the Bungendore community to be a strong advocate for a properly located high school will be a matter of public record for which we will be held accountable. And I anticipate and expect that the community will ferociously hold us to this commitment.”
The Save Bungendore Park group echoed this sentiment in an online post to its community, addressing the decision and suggesting blame should not be placed with council.
“As it stands, completion of a school on Bungendore Park any time in 2023 is looking doubtful, and even Term 1, 2024 looks optimistic,” the posted stated.
“These delays are not the fault of council or those in the community opposing the plan. They have been obvious since last year and are the fault of the Department of Education, which – with the support of John Barilaro – made a last-minute decision to change sites, without any consultation or due diligence.
“The best chance for a Bungendore High School, without further delay, is to build it on a site that doesn’t present the legal and planning difficulties facing this deeply troubled plan.”