HUNTER schools are turning to a popularity-driven community grants program to access state government funding for capital works projects, such as building a retaining wall to divert storm water away from students and upgrading play equipment more than 30 years old.
Across the region, 28 public schools, four Catholic schools and one independent school have requested a combined more than $2.8 million through the My Community Project program, which the state government set up to fund projects in each electorate to "help improve the wellbeing" of communities.
Applicants - including the schools; churches; councils; and youth, disability and sporting groups - made submissions for funding in April and May.
Voting was open in July and August using a preferential voting system.
New Lambton Heights Infants School applied for $27,510 to build a retaining wall to "ensure correct drainage away from children play areas", saying it will "give families peace of mind that their children are safe, while at school, playing and learning".
"Any concerns about land movements or collapsing structures are eliminated with a sturdy foundation," the school wrote in its application.
"All users of the playground area - including young children, their parents and grandparents will be safe and not concerned about land movements, drainage blocks or playground equipment being damaged through excessive stormwater overflowing from the current drainage system."
The state government is the sole funder of capital works at public schools.
The federal government stopped providing capital funding for public schools in 2017.
Shadow education minister Prue Car said the NSW Department of Education should pay as a matter of priority for works such as diverting storm water.
"When have you ever heard of a private school having to beg for money to divert storm water?" Ms Car asked.
"People pay taxes to the government to provide an education system and schools are simply not getting the resources they need.
"The government has to take an audit of what schools need and provide basic requirements."
Ms Car said grant programs would always be needed to support community organisations with no or limited income.
"They should not have to compete with schools, which have a source of funding from the government."
While some applications are for what could be deemed optional extras, several address safety.
Gloucester Public has requested $100,000 to modernise deteriorated and "now unsafe" playground equipment.
Cessnock East Public has applied for $80,000 to go partially towards shade sails for protection from a bat colony that "has rendered this [play] equipment unusable".
Cardiff South Public has requested $35,000 to install a shade structure to cover equipment "too hot to touch without burning" and Shoal Bay P&C Association wants $24,915 to improve the school entrance by repairing an uneven path that "poses a trip and fall hazard" and is subject to flooding.
NSW Teachers Federation's Hunter representative Jack Galvin Waight said he could understand why some school communities have applied for grants.
"They want what's best for their local school and both the federal and state governments have failed to adequately address capital works backlogs in public schools," he said.
"I just think it's outrageous that it's come to this, and disagree with the principle of holding a competition for community grants.
"Teaching and learning environment shouldn't be based on a popularity contest, or be determined by which postcode that your child lives in. That's not the society we want.
"Unfortunately, state and federal government funding for schools is simply not going where it's needed most.
"Some public schools in the Hunter haven't been upgraded in decades, while elite non-government schools that receive both state and federal government funding, on top of parent fees, are building extravagant facilities."
The Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) is an estimate of how much recurrent public funding a school needs and is made up of a base per-student amount, plus loadings for six types of disadvantage.
In public schools, the SRS is solely funded by taxpayers. In non-government schools, parents must pay part of the SRS.
Mr Galvin Waight said the SRS has "exposed that the vast majority of private schools are being over-funded". "But no such standard exists for capital works funding, and this needs to change," he said.
"As does the perceived need for school communities to participate in competitions simply to get adequate resources for their great public schools. This is the job of both the state and federal governments, and they need to start looking after the majority of students, not just elite private schools."
Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle chief executive Sean Scanlon defended Catholic schools applying for grants. He said the diocese was "committed to a robust building and development program" but the majority of works were funded by parents and carers.
He said the Diocesan Family School Building Levy pays for major refurbishment and capital works in existing schools and for new schools.
"It is true that non-government schools receive funding from the federal and state government for capital works projects through the Capital Block Grant Authority, however it is only a small proportion of the funds needed to deliver projects," he said.
"Within this context, we would encourage schools to... [apply for grants] to attract additional funds for the development of their school and to enhance students' learning environment."
The government will announce the successful projects next month. About $260,000 is available for each electorate.
A department spokesperson said applying for grants was a matter for individual schools.
"The NSW Government is spending $2.2 billion on major and minor works in public schools in 2019/20.
"This is part of the $6.7 billion being invested to deliver 190 new and upgraded schools over the next four years. In addition, more than $620 million has been committed to wipe the maintenance backlog... this year."
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