‘How is this possible?’ Parents fuming after termite-damaged school denied mobile classrooms

Simone Heywood is worried about her daughter, Siella, who is in a classroom with almost 50 students. Photo: Supplied

By SELBY STEWART,
politics editor

When Simone Heywood sends her daughter, Siella, off to her grade one class at Bonbeach Primary School, she wants to know her child is learning to the best of her ability.

Given that the classroom is crammed with about 48 students and two teachers, Ms Heywood is certain this is not the case, and now the public school in Melbourne’s southeast has been denied mobile classrooms while they await construction work.

“It’s been five months and nothing has happened and I don’t want to wait another five months to start momentum,” Ms Heywood said.

“We want portables now and we want a fair space for our children to learn,” she said.

After a storm damaged part of the school in October last year, the Victorian School Building Authority (VSBA) stepped in and emergency works were scheduled, until a termite infestation halted progress.

Now, almost five months later, repairs have not begun, two dilapidated classrooms remain empty and parents have had enough.

The school, however, has denied students’ education had been affected by the damage and said it had been a positive start to the year for everyone. The spokesperson declined to comment further.   

Ms Heywood said her daughter often complained of the noise and was visibly affected.

Andreea Sfarlea posted a collection of her personal pleas on social media to call attention to the state of the school. Compilation video: Cameron Howe

“Just because my child seems happy doesn’t mean that she is learning to the best of her ability, I don’t think a six-year-old can judge that,” Ms Heywood said.

After the termite infestation was discovered, the Department of Education sent in engineers who investigated the rooms and deemed them safe to occupy.

However, the school made an “operational decision” to disallow students access to the damaged classrooms to avoid disrupting the repairs, according to an update from the VSBA.

The problem was construction on the rooms’ floors could not take place until the termite treatment yielded results, and parents have been told this could take from three to six months.

Under the Relocatable Building Program, the Education Department is able to provide mobile classrooms to schools experiencing the greatest enrolment pressures, however Bonbeach’s enrolment numbers reportedly fall below its 325-student capacity, according to an update given by the VSBA on February 12.

Temporary metal beams are supporting the roof in the boys and girls bathrooms. Photo: Andreea Sfarlea

 

Parents allege the two unused classrooms were included in the department’s evaluation of the school’s available space.

The Education Department’s own website also provided an estimate – based on enrolment projections and demographic data – that placed the school’s 2018 enrolment at 326 and over capacity.

Parents also said that they were told by staff during a meeting last week that the school was at capacity and that a single enrolment could push Bonbeach over the limit.

Desperate for a solution, Andreea Sfarlea – a mother of two children at Bonbeach – took to social media to protest against the “flawed assessment” of the affected buildings and demand relocatable classrooms.

Ms Sfarlea penned an open letter – which was posted online – to Labor  Carrum MP Sonya Kilkenny, and said the government had “shown complete disregard” for the children and staff at Bonbeach.

Ms Sfarlea also uploaded several YouTube clips that exposed the true condition of the classrooms.  

She said she had received no response from Ms Kilkenny.

Feeling “completely ignored” by her local MP, Ms Sfarlea then released another series of YouTube videos of the classrooms that the VSBA had deemed habitable.

In one video, temporary metal beams were seen supporting the roof of the male and female toilets while the adjacent classroom contained barricades that covered the air conditioning unit and blocked the windows from opening.

Another clip exposed the deteriorating foundation of one classroom, before a shot of the roof exposed a dip in the frame that appeared to be collapsing. Only meters away across a narrow hall, students continued to learn in makeshift teaching spaces.

Ms Sfarlea said one class had been pushed into the staff room and the teachers had been left with no replacement area.

Windows and the air conditioning unit are blocked by barricades through summer despite the Department describing the building as safe and habitable. Photo: Andreea Sfarlea

 

Another class was moved into a hall situated away from the main building and class sizes had increased with children in grades one and two most affected.

The VSBA did not respond to a request for comment.   

MP Ms Kilkenny has since said she had been working closely with Bonbeach over the past year to find a solution for the school.

“I have been advocating for a longer term solution for Bonbeach Primary on behalf of the school community … I’ve been working closely with school council president Anita McKenzie on a master plan for the school and with the minister and his team,” Ms Kilkenny said.

Despite their frustrations, both Ms Heywood and Ms Sfarlea said  they weren’t upset with the school and were pleased with the way Bonbeach had handled the situation thus far.

They feel it is the system that has let them down; the government and their representatives who have pushed them to the edge.

“Education is an investment in the governments and economies future,” Ms Heywood said.

“If we don’t have a solid education for our children we – and they – won’t have a solid future.”