8 June 2023

Orana Steiner School enrolment dip is manageable, says board chair

| Ian Bushnell
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Orana Steiner School has had a slow decline in enrolments that has affected its budgeting. Photo: Facebook.

Canberra’s only Steiner school has rejected claims it is in financial trouble, saying it is fully compliant with its registration and was working through challenges posed by a fall in enrolments.

Orana board chair Rachel Thomas told Region that there had been a slow decrease in enrolments over a number of years which had affected the school’s budgeting.

“There is nothing precarious; we adjust our financial strategy to respond,” she said.

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The situation came to light after a small group of about 10 parents at the independent P-Year 12 school at Weston went public with a letter to the board calling for a special general meeting and a spill of all positions.

The parents also raised concerns about staff turnover, a “toxic and intimidating culture” at the school and mismanagement of building projects.

The call for a special general meeting is allowed under the school’s constitution, and that took place on 30 May, but the call for a vote on the board positions, including for Ms Thomas to stand down, did not happen.

Ms Thomas said the financial issues were openly addressed at the meeting but there was no substance to the other matters.

She said teacher turnover was an issue for schools generally but was probably less at Orana.

However, the school is seeking a new principal after the sudden departure last September of Geoff Fouracre, not long after being appointed.

Ms Thomas said it was disappointing to have a principal for such a short time because leadership stability was so important, but interviews for the position were being conducted, and the Acting Principal, Kelly Armstrong, had done a great job.

Ms Thomas had no idea where the culture issue came from.

“The board is unified and has good governance,” she said. “The culture within the school is good.”

Ms Thomas could not say whether the special general meeting had placated the group, which included several couples.

She said the issues had already been openly canvassed at the Annual General Meeting on 23 May.

“The board has been really open about addressing what’s been put forward,” Ms Thomas said.

“That approach has been really important to me, ensuring that what the board is discussing is shared with the community.”

Ms Thomas’s report for the 2023 AGM showed the school had an operating deficit of $1.2 million in 2022, and a deficit was also expected in 2023.

She said the board was currently examining options to arrest the deficit in the 2024 budget, but she could not say what these measures would be as they were still being finalised.

ACT Government school census figures show that K-12 enrolments in February this year were 479, down from 530 last year. The primary school (K-6) has fallen from 332 in 2019 to 265 this year.

Ms Thomas said many factors were at play in parents’ decisions, including cost of living pressures, but Canberra also had a transient population that caused enrolments to fluctuate.

The public airing of the school’s financial position may have prompted the Registrar of Non-Government Schools to contact the school to ask about its situation.

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An ACT Government spokesperson said the Orana board provided the registrar with all documentation requested to affirm the school’s current financial position and governance.

“Documents included the 2021 and 2022 audited financial statements and expert reports to the board. The school complies with the financial viability registration standard,” the spokesperson said.

“The board is aware of the financial challenges, and the registrar agrees with the board that the issue is openly addressed in the financial statements and in the board’s deliberations. The board is proactively and thoughtfully considering the best course of action, and they are accessing expert advice.

“The board and the registrar agreed to develop a monitoring plan together as the school makes key decisions to improve the financial situation and renew the school’s growth.”

The school’s $1.5 million music building under construction, funded partly by an $800,000 grant from the ACT Government, is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

But plans for a new Year 4 and art building at a cost of $2.48 million are on hold due to the increase in building costs.

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