Parents unite to keep school open

The news was bad but the mood was ‘let’s see what can be done’, when concerned Shearwater Steiner School parents packed the Civic Centre in Mullumbimby last Thursday night.

They were there to hear about the school’s financial crisis and the appointment of administrators, PPB.

Parents had known that things were not good – talk around town was of teachers not being paid – but most had had no idea of the extent of the debt, and many were gobsmacked when the Power Point presentation got to the slide with all the sums.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” admitted Mark Robinson of PPB, as parents attempted to grasp the implications of figures in the millions and hundreds of thousands owing to financiers and creditors.

The purpose of the meeting was to explain the process of voluntary administration and to be transparent about the school debt.

“We’re only here for a short time,” said Mark, “so that the school can continue to trade and continue to offer its services to the children.”

He explained that the purpose of voluntary administration was to formulate a short term financial plan for the school for up to 10 weeks and to deal with the creditors owed money, and on the premise that they were successful, to encapsulate this in a deed of company arrangement.

Liz Fleming from PPB admitted that they were looking for ‘a pot of gold’ that would need to be in the shape of a gift of around $1.5 to $2 million.

“Are there any wealthy benefactors out there?” she asked.

In the worst case scenario, if an arangement didn’t occur, the school would close, ‘in an orderly fashion, over a two-week period.’

Paul Campi from Resolve Accounting appealed to the parents to keep their children in the school so government funding would continue to flow, to pay outstanding fees and to set up a regular payment plan.

Parent and volunteer interim board member Jan Roskott outlined the options currently facing the school: to sell off some of their assets in the form of land not being used, to look at merger in some form with Cape Byron Steiner School, and to ask for donations from parents.

“These would not go straight into our bank account – who knows what would happen?” he joked, getting one of the evening’s few laughs.

Go forward

Greg Parks representing the College of Teachers assured parents of their continuing responsibility to the children and drew applause with the conclusion that ‘we would like to go forward with your support.’

And it seems that pretty much everyone has a strong interest in keeping it going.

“I don’t know where I’d send my children if it closed,” said parent Sally Tansley.

“The teachers are wonderful – my little boy is absolutely shining there, and has taken off in a way I’d never have anticipated.

“But I do believe that an interim management in place and a new board structure will prevent the mistakes of the past ever happening again.”

Founding chair Ian Howden, who has had children at the school continuously since its inception in 1993 when it began in a garage with 37 children, also feels positive about the school’s future.

“The only reason PPB and Resolve are prepared to come in is that they see real possibilities of success,” he said.

“Resolve has worked with other independent schools with a much bigger debt, and the 10-year forecast that Paul Campi has done shows a very viable school.”

 And given that parents don’t want the school to close – some have moved to Mullumbimby specifically to put their children in Shearwater, while other have made big financial sacrifices for the same purpose – and children don’t want to leave the school where they feel settled and happy, right now the feeling is that the parents and friends will somehow pull together to either find or create that pot of gold.

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