EDUCATION Minister Sue Ellery has assured that students boarding at the Moora Residential College (MRC) are safe, following comments made by Premier Mark McGowan surrounding the flagged closure of the facility next year.
It comes after Mr McGowan told 6PR radio last week that an $8.7 million upgrade was needed to make the Moora Residential College “fire safe” – an amount his government could not justify.
“The advice we got is that there was $8.7m needed to make the residential college fire safe and so that’s $8.7m that we’d have to spend on a residential college that has a declining population about which there are other opportunities for students to attend other residential colleges or Yanchep High School,” Mr McGowan said.
With 29 students boarding at the MRC since the school year began last week, questions were raised about the Premier’s comments and the risks posed to students boarding at the college.
Education Minister Sue Ellery has since confirmed the facility is fire safe and poses no risk to students.
“The Department of Education makes every effort to ensure no student is put at risk at a WA school or facility,” Ms Ellery said.
“The Department of Education and Department of Finance’s Building Management and Works will continue to assess and monitor the facility while there are students attending.
“Major refurbishment and upgrades, including addressing non-compliance issues, were costed at $8.7m.”
The Nationals WA member for the Agricultural Region Martin Aldridge has criticised the Premier for using fire safety as his justification for closing the MRC.
“It’s an excuse and not a very good one – there’s nothing more that demonstrates that than the fact that they admitted students last week into Moora Residential College and they intend for those students to see out the rest of this year there,” Mr Aldridge said.
“If there was indeed a fire code issue, if there was a risk of a building not meeting the fire safety regulations, why are there kids in Moora tonight?
“It’s a bit of a cop out to say we have to close Moora because it’s a fire code issue.”
The $8.7m figure quoted by the Premier as the fire safety cost was the amount set aside by the former Liberal/National government in August 2016 for an upgrade of the residential college, which has not received any major renovations since its establishment in 1974.
The upgrade was scheduled to commence in March 2018, but funding was taken off the table by the McGowan government last year.
Those impacted by the MRC’s closure – including representatives from the Central Midlands Senior High School (CMSHS) P&C, the MRC, and the Shire of Moora – have conceded the renovation will not go ahead and are calling for the State government to provide enough funds to cover essential repairs and maintenance works to keep the residential facility open.
The Shire of Moora and school P&C estimate the essential repairs and maintenance could cost as little as $160,000.
Moora Shire president Ken Seymour said the closure of the MRC would have significant economic impacts on the local community and its potential for growth.
He said the Shire of Moora had commissioned an economic impact assessment to analyse the financial implications of the closure of the MRC, which he hoped would prove to the Premier the significant consequences of his government’s decision.
With several developments flagged in surrounding shires, Mr Seymour said the ramifications of losing the MRC would be acutely felt by the wider Wheatbelt region.
“There’s stage one of a piggery about to happen, there’s a proposed dairy west of Moora in the Dandaragan Shire, there’s proposed feedlots, there’s proposed new wind farms – these aren’t in the Moora Shire but some of these projects will and may use Moora as a service town with our medical facilities and education facilities,” Mr Seymour said.
“Moora has enough power, water, land and sewerage to double in size which from time to time holds country towns back – so we’re in a fortunate position to have all of those four services in abundance.
“When you’re trying to attract people to a country town, their questions when they’re contemplating moving are always, what are your health and medical facilities like, and what are your education services like?
“We don’t want to lose those education services.”
Mr Seymour said although the State government had assured the Moora community that CMSHS would not lose its high school status as a result of a 15-20 per cent reduction in student enrolments from the loss of MRC boarders, concerns remained that it would become a district high school.
“We’re worried about losing a certain amount of mass in the high school – and if and when we do – we’re worried about it going back to just offering up to Year 10,” Mr Seymour said.
“The government says that won’t happen, well that’s fine for the government to say that now but there will be future ministers and future governments that this government has no say over.”
Three Springs grower Chad Eva said many farmers across the region were already feeling the impacts of the planned closure of the MRC.
With CMSHS the only high school between Perth and Geraldton, Mr Eva said losing the residential college would make attracting and keeping farm workers in the region more difficult than it already was.
With the cost of boarding and tuition fees at Perth schools up to $50,000 a year, he said boarding school was not a viable option for many people living and working in regional WA.
“At the moment I’m chasing four workmen – two permanents and two casuals – and trying to get young guys that have got kids close to high school age is hard, they don’t know what they’re going to do,” Mr Eva said.
“If you’re after younger people, trying to get them to live in the country when they’ve got kids that are potentially going away to boarding school or trying to – they’re asking how can I afford it?”
Mr Eva said some farmers had turned to increasing wages, or contributing to boarding school fees to attract farm employees.
Mr Seymour said the Shire would continue to campaign to keep the MRC open, and was energised by the success of last week’s protest.
Close to 600 people attended a rally in Moora early last week urging the State government to reverse its decision to close the MRC.
Mr Seymour said the Shire was keen to meet with the Premier and Education Minister Sue Ellery and had extended an invitation for them to visit the MRC.
Neither have accepted the invitation.
“If anything, we are ramping up our campaign, we are doing more and more homework on finding out how important maintaining the residential college is,” Mr Seymour said.
“As far as the community goes the buck stops at the Premier, if he thinks it’s worth saving that much money, he should make the short trip to Moora to actually talk to student, parents and the people of the Shire and region.
“We’d really like to see the Education Minister and we would be more than happy to show the Premier – to get him to speak to the community about this issue because that’s how strongly we feel about it.”
Farm Weekly contacted the Premier’s office for comment but received no response.