ON the eve of the start of a new school year, 400 people gathered on the streets of Moora on Tuesday afternoon to take a stand against the State Government’s decision to close the only country residential facility between Perth and Geraldton next year.
It comes after Education Minister Sue Ellery announced early last month that the government would backflip on several controversial cuts to regional education – including the closure of WA’s five Schools of the Air and the Northam Residential College – but stopped short of reversing the decision to close the Moora Residential College (MRC).
Ms Ellery was a notable absentee from the protest and sent her apologies from the Pilbara, where she announced the first of 100 education assistants to be employed across WA public schools.
Member for the Agricultural Region Darren West spoke on behalf of the Labor Government, and said it would be too costly to keep the residential college open.
“The hostel is in an extremely bad state, the hostel was left in a bad state by the previous government and by the government before,” Mr West said.
“It’s our view, it is every report’s view that this hostel can not be renovated.
“It’s the view of the previous government and of our government that the hostel must be replaced and to replace the hostel costs in the order of $9 million which we don’t have and was not allocated in any of the previous budgets.
“That’s the reality that we face and it means that we need to make some really tough decisions.
“A renovated hostel is not an option.”
Liberal spokesperson for Education Donna Faragher, The Nationals WA member for Moore Shane Love, The Nationals WA member for the Agricultural Region Martin Aldridge, Isolated Children’s Parents’ (ICPA) president Tash Johns, Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA) president Tony Seabrook and Moora Shire president Ken Seymour were among others who spoke on the importance of the college remaining open.
Several businesses closed their doors to join the rally, and pillows were laid in front of the crowd to represent each child who will no longer have accommodation available in the town from next year.
The MRC provides accommodation for up to 50 students from Years 7 to 12 who attend Central Midlands Senior High School (CMSHS) in Moora, and is one of eight country residential colleges across WA.
Over the past decade enrolment numbers have fluctuated from 28 to 36 students, with 29 boarders registered for the 2018 school year from towns including Marble Bar, Eneabba, Geraldton, Eighty Mile Beach, Coorow, Dalwallinu, Lancelin, Badgingarra, Wubin, Pithara, Karakin, Ledge Point, Bindi Bindi, Buntine, Nilgen and Sandstone.
With no major upgrades to the residence since its establishment in 1974, a major $8.7m renovation was flagged for the campus in August 2016 under the former Liberal-National Government through Royalties for Regions funding.
The renovation was scheduled to commence in March 2018, but funding was taken off the table by the McGowan Government last year.
Ms Ellery said extensive renovations needed at the MRC meant keeping the facility open would come at a significant financial cost.
“Moora Residential College requires a substantial upgrade and rebuilding, this should have been done by the previous Liberal-National Government which spent more than eight years in government, however it was not,” Ms Ellery said.
“I intend to work with my ministerial colleagues and the families of students to identify alternatives to assist the students who board at Moora Residential College to complete their education.”
Ms Ellery said there were several other options available for those present and prospective students of the MRC, including residential facilities in Northam, Merredin and Narrogin.
“Three residential colleges will remain across the Wheatbelt and one in Geraldton – they have capacity to accept placements in 2018 and beyond,” Ms Ellery said.
“Keeping Northam open ensures students in the north of the region continue to have an option.
“A third of the students at Moora come from the coast – the new Yanchep College opening next week could be a viable option for them being about an hour away from Lancelin.
“Those students will also have Northam within two hours and Geraldton further north if that’s more suitable to where they live.”
Ms Ellery said she met with a delegation of representatives from the Shire of Moora, CMSHS and the MRC last week to discuss the closure of the facility.
Among those who met with the Minister was CMSHS P&C president Tracey Errington, who said the group of delegates had not been consulted prior to the meeting last week.
Ms Errington said the closure of the residential college would impact staff and student numbers at CMSHS, and potentially affect the quality and availability of education services.
“The first impact it’s going to have is on our high school. It’s going to drop our numbers by about 15 per cent which of course drops our funding,” Ms Errington said.
“Straight away we’ll have to tighten our budget again for the remaining kids which means we could possibly lose more teachers, and we may have to drop subjects.
“We’re currently the only senior high school between Perth and Geraldton so we offer face-to-face ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) subjects in conjunction with SIDE (School of Isolated and Distance Education).
“We may find ourselves in a situation where we can’t offer those face-to-face ATAR subjects anymore.”
On top of the direct implications to CMSHS and its 170 students, Ms Errington said the closure of the MRC would have a major effect on the Moora economy.
She said without quality high school education available, current and prospective families would be deterred from living and working in Moora and other nearby towns which utilise the MRC.
“Of course it starts the drain on the town, the parents will say ‘my children can’t get the education they need’, so you have families moving away,” Ms Errington said.
Ms Errington said the community was willing to concede the upgrade, with the primary priority to keeping the residential facility open.
She said the MRC could remain functional and safe with just minor maintenance and repair works that could cost the State as little as $160,000 per year.
“Ideally, if we could keep the college open for the next few years with just having regular maintenance, that would suit us until such time as they’re prepared to do the upgrade,” Ms Errington said.
“The Minister is still fixated on the $8.7 million upgrade which has been off the table since last year anyway, so it’s totally irrelevant.
“What we’ve been asking her for is the cost of the essential maintenance and repairs.”
In a Budget Estimates Hearing last October, it was confirmed that a review was being undertaken to determine the scope and cost of urgent works required to maintain the MRC.
At the time of the hearing more than three months ago, some draft information had been compiled for a report to the Government, with the final report “imminent”.
However, The Nationals WA member for the Agricultural Region Martin Aldridge – a former boarder at the MRC – said the Minister was yet to make the report public.
Mr Aldridge said he had requested the details of the report through Freedom of Information, as it was a necessary part of the conversation.
“Certainly that information will be something that is relevant to the discussion,” Mr Aldridge said.
“Are we talking about a few hundred thousand dollars or a million, or $5 million?
“Until we have that professional assessment we’re having stabs in the dark.
“Maybe the Government doesn’t want us to have that information because it weakens their argument?”
Mr Aldridge said the Labor Government was running a “simplistic argument” by using the expense of the upgrade to justify her decision to close the college.
“If you spend $8.7m refurbishing the Moora Residential College you’d get another 20 or 30 years out of it and that’s hundreds of kids and families,” Mr Aldridge said.
“You’d potentially grow the numbers at Central Midlands Senior High School and the Moora Residential College because it has actually got a modern facility.
“This is the great challenge regionally – as soon as you start defining the worth of something by the population, nothing stacks up.
“Just this week the Premier announced 10 new schools to be built in the metropolitan area, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, all of which are located in Labor-held seats.
“It’s hard not to be cynical about these cuts in country WA when the dollars seem to be flowing freely in Perth.”
Ms Errington said the campaign to keep the MRC open had received strong support from the ICPA, the WA Council of State School Organisations, the PGA, WAFarmers, the Country Women’s Association of WA (CWA) and School of the Air advocates.
She said the fight to reverse the State’s decision would continue and further action would take place at future rallies, including a CWA protest scheduled for later this month.
She said regional Western Australians would be turning to their city counterparts to help build pressure on the State government.
“Moora has a history of fighting for what we deserve and we’re pretty hopeful that they’ll get it overturned,” Ms Errington said.
“We can not afford to lose the college, we’re determined it’s not going to happen.”
- Deb Fisher, Moora, was keen to let her feelings known at the rally. “If we send our kids to Perth we have to pay to board them which is extremely expensive," Ms Fisher said. "We won't lay down for Labor and we won't lay down for anybody. "Just as a local, it’s not fair to the kids, and we need to stand together for those kids, which is what I think people are forgetting. “There are only 1800 people in Moora but we are still part of the population in WA."