NEWCASTLE High would move to a recently rehabilitated corner of National Park to allow for the creation of a new primary school on its existing site, under one of the plans the state government has considered for the Newcastle Education Precinct.
Then education minister, Rob Stokes, announced the precinct - which involves upgrading Newcastle High and building a new primary school "to meet future enrolment growth", as well as shared community facilities - on June 14, 2018, as part of a record $6 billion over four years to deliver more than 170 new and upgraded schools.
But a Newcastle Herald investigation has revealed two years on, the business case for the precinct has not been finalised, nor submitted to Cabinet or the NSW Treasury for funding allocation.
The Herald applied to the Department of Education under the Government Information (Public Access) (GIPA) Act 2009 in February this year for 'reports and assessments relating to the creation of the precinct, including a funding estimate, source and timeline; student demand forecast and the new primary school'.
School Infrastructure NSW relieving chief operating officer Erin Giuliani refused to release the information and the Herald has appealed to the Information Commissioner for an external review.
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In refusing the Herald's application, Ms Giuliani said there were two service needs reports for both the primary and secondary clusters, two preliminary infrastructure plans, a draft masterplan document, four engineers reports relating to structures at Newcastle High and a feasibility study produced in August last year.
Ms Giuliani said the two preliminary infrastructure plan documents contained what she considered Cabinet information and all the documents "contain information that could reasonably be expected to prejudice the functions or deliberative processes of the department if it is released to you".
"All of the documents listed above were prepared for the purpose of developing the business case for the Newcastle Education Precinct (NEP)," Ms Giuliani said.
"The business case is still a work in progress and is currently being deliberated on. It is also expected that the NEP Business Case will be submitted to Cabinet to determine funding allocations under the NSW Budget.
"After balancing the relevant public interest considerations, I have found that there exists an overriding public interest against disclosing the documents listed above as it would reveal confidential information and would prejudice the deliberative processes and functions of the department."
The Herald has obtained a copy of a draft masterplan from August 2018, which outlines two options for the precinct.
The first involves splitting the existing Newcastle High site evenly between the high school and new primary school. It would require removing the existing performing arts facility and library to create an active play space for the primary school. A 2000 square metre library and a sports centre/communal hall would be shared with the public.
The second option involves establishing the primary school in the existing high school footprint and relocating Newcastle High to a parcel between National Park, Parry and Smith streets.
This would involve removing the National Park tennis courts and associated structures, the addition of two full size and one junior sports field and reconfiguring No 5 and No 6 sports grounds.
Several facilities would be shared with the public, including a sports centre/communal hall, library, forecourt with cafeteria and a performing arts and cultural centre.
The delay - and lack of public updates about the precinct - has left Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp, the council, residents, sporting clubs and families asking if, when and where funding will be available and construction will begin.
Families have long called for a new school to be built somewhere within the inner city to meet growing demand, but residents and the City of Newcastle want to keep the unused corner of National Park for passive recreation.
"This government is developing quite the reputation for announcing projects with great fanfare and then doing a great disappearing act soon after," Mr Crakanthorp said.
"Early on I received a briefing about the Newcastle Education Precinct, however any information since has had to be dragged out of them. Most recently I had to use Budget Estimates [last September and this April] just to be able to receive a simple update, which revealed that the business case is expected to be submitted during the third quarter of this year, however no information was provided about how much money had been spent on the project.
"As a result we have to rely on a $116,000 figure [from September 2019] which is nine months out-of-date and offers no explanation of where that money went, other than on heritage and architectural consultants.
"With so little progress and information available two years after the Newcastle Education Precinct was announced, that says to me that either the project has stalled or that the government is looking for a more politically opportune time to progress it."
A spokesperson for Minister for Education Sarah Mitchell told the Herald on Friday the government was "committed to the Newcastle Education Precinct and to providing public school students in Newcastle with school facilities of the highest quality".
The spokesperson said the business case will "validate student demand in the area, assess the need for the educational requirements including new and upgraded facilities, and consider a number of joint use opportunities to provide expanded community facilities within the precinct site".
"It will also determine the necessary funding requirements for the project, and address the catchment area and student capacity for schools in the precinct. Next steps will include continued consultation regarding joint use opportunities and finalisation of design."
The spokesperson said the department has "been engaging" with stakeholders including Newcastle Council, schools, Newcastle Netball, Friends of National Park, Royal Lifesaving, University of Newcastle and Hunter Sports Academy.
The spokesperson said about $150,000 had been spent on planning work to date.
"The department undertakes due diligence to plan carefully for new and upgraded schools.
"Some delays have occurred with the project due to ongoing joint use considerations and the need to assess the impact of the planned Newcastle (Broadmeadow) Sports and Entertainment Precinct."
Mr Crakanthorp said the government's response was not good enough.
"The government's refusal of the Herald's GIPA also makes you wonder what, if anything, has been going on in the background and why they want to keep it secret," he said.
"This project... has been funded by taxpayers and they have a right to know how it is progressing.
"It should not take GIPAs or Budget Estimates questioning to get information.
"Additionally, this information is important to young families who need to make decisions about their children's education.
"They want to know that if they enrol their eldest child at a school the siblings will also be able to attend, so they won't be subject to the chopping and changing of enrolment boundaries or policies, which is already an issue."
Mr Crakanthorp called for papers about the precinct through Peter Primrose MLC in the Legislative Council last week, but there was an objection.
"Sadly, I'm not even surprised," Mr Crakanthorp said.
"The government is using every trick it can to block or delay the release of information that is in the public interest, even trying to escape scrutiny in the upper house by objecting to a call for papers from the Opposition.
"This precinct is supposed to have a primary school, a high school and wealth of joint-use and community facilities - if the government thinks information on the development of this precinct is not in the public interest then I don't know what they think is.
"The government is making this process as difficult as they can, so it really makes you wonder what it is they don't want us knowing."
In answers published last September to Mr Crakanthorp's Budget Estimates questions, the government said the precinct was in the "early planning stages" and $116,468 had been invoiced by external consultants providing heritage and architectural services.
"Progress is on track to complete the work, including the final masterplan design, by the end of 2019," it said.
"In line with standard School Infrastructure NSW procedures, the final masterplan design for the school will not be released until the business case justifying investment is approved and consultation with key stakeholders has been completed."
In its April answers, the government said the masterplan for the Newcastle High site was being updated and would be included in the business case, due for submission in the third quarter of this year.
"Consultation on the design will be undertaken as part of planned consultation with key stakeholders on joint use opportunities for any new facilities," it said.
"This consultation will be undertaken to inform the business case."
Friends of National Park spokesperson Susan Outram said residents would support a new primary school on the existing Newcastle High site, but would be opposed to building on the land between National Park, Parry and Smith streets, which the council has recently rehabilitated.
She said National Park was zoned public recreation and should be kept as one of the inner city's last vestiges of passive recreation and green open space.
She said in the future it could include grassed areas, a community garden, basketball hoops, tennis walls, play equipment or a dog park.
"There's going to be a never-ending stream [of demand] for schools," Dr Outram said.
"Do we just take all the parkland?
"The education department have sold off school real-estate over the last ten or 20 years when it didn't need them. Go and buy some back.
"Green open space is important for people's health and wellbeing and to cool our urban environment."
Dr Outram said group members met in May 2019 with department representatives, who told them the department did not yet have data to show whether there was a need for a new primary school on the site.
She said the department advised her before a community meeting last September there were no new developments.
"We were just hoping the whole idea had gone away," she said.
"I was hoping because we had not heard anything, that the council and the local state member had not heard anything... that it had gone away.
"It's still being talked about in the community. What I'd like is a definitive update that it's not going to go ahead [in National Park]."
She said residents also had concerns about traffic flow and parking.
A City of Newcastle spokesperson said department representatives met with council staff early this year and requested a Memorandum of Understanding.
"This has not progressed," the spokesperson said.
"No plans are afoot to rezone any section of National Park. Community consultation will begin on a Plan of Management for the entire National Park area later this year and will involve extensive engagement with the community and key stakeholders."
Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes said as "long-held plans for Newcastle's CBD in Newcastle West come to fruition, it is imperative that public open space for passive recreation is protected".
"I am very pleased that our recently completed work rehabilitating National Park between National Park and Smith streets, where the former bowling club building was located, has delivered more recreational open space in the city.
"The area has been made into turfed, open parkland to give the community a significant area of green space in a prime, central location."
She said the council would install basketball facilities on part of the park's "disused" tennis courts.
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