A NEW primary school proposed as the centrepiece of the vexed Newcastle Education Precinct to "meet future enrolment growth" appears to be off the table - and has been for almost 18 months.
The state government announced the precinct on June 14, 2018, "including a new public school to meet future enrolment growth and upgrading Newcastle High School with expanded community facilities".
The Newcastle Herald applied to the Department of Education in February this year under the Government Information (Public Access) Act for access to documents relating to the creation of the precinct, student demand forecasts and the new primary school, but the application was denied.
The Herald appealed to the Information and Privacy Commission, which found the department's decision was "not justified" and recommended it "make a new decision by way of internal review".
The department upheld its original decision.
The Herald has this week obtained several internal department documents, including a briefing created in July 2019 for Education Minister Sarah Mitchell in response to Newcastle MP Tim Crakanthorp's Question on Notice about the precinct.
The briefing said there was "unlikely to be a need to incorporate a new primary school in the precinct".
"The existing primary schools within the Newcastle High School catchment area can accommodate future primary school enrolment demand through to at least the year 2036," it said.
Mr Crakanthorp said the documents obtained this week held the first indication the government has scrapped its plan for the school.
"I'm gobsmacked that the department has known since at least July last year that a primary school would be very unlikely to go ahead in the precinct, but have chosen to sit on this information.
"The community has absolutely been misled on primary school options."
MR Crakanthorp said even the department's own website still lists a primary school as a possible inclusion.
However the department's draft communication and engagement strategy for the precinct, approved on October 28 this year, makes no mention of the primary school.
It refers to the "scope of the master-planning option" as comprising an upgrade of Newcastle High School, the potential inclusion of a senior school for specific purposes and the potential inclusion of a joint use hall and library, subject to external funding.
It listed the first day of term one in 2024 as "indicative timing" for the official opening.
Newcastle East Public school council president Lisa Piefke said it didn't make sense to take away the primary school without having an alternative solution for what she said would be growing numbers of students living in the city.
"I'm not quite sure exactly who they anticipate is going to move into the apartments they're currently building," she said.
"It's one thing to take it off the table, but it's another thing to actually not have an alternative, unless they do and they're just not telling us."
Department data from June 1 this year shows the numbers of students at Newcastle East, Hamilton South, Tighes Hill and Merewether Heights public schools are already above their enrolment caps, based on their number of permanent buildings.
The department tabled its internal documents after Peter Primrose MLC moved a motion in the Legislative Council on November 11 under Standing Order 52 that it produce all documents created since June 30, 2017, relating to the precinct.
Ms Mitchell told parliament at the time the government was "happy to be transparent".
Of the four boxes of documents, three were considered to be privileged and available to Mr Primrose only.
He will challenge this decision.
Mr Crakanthorp said he had used Budget Estimates to receive updates, as well as asked questions in the Legislative Assembly and through Mr Primrose in the Legislative Council, but details had not been forthcoming.
He said it appeared the department had been "happy to box [the documents] up, but they weren't happy for us to actually look at them".
"Keeping 75 per cent of documents privileged sure is a funny interpretation of the word 'transparent'," he said.
"Of course, the irony is that if there had been more transparency along the way we never would have had to even use the powers of parliament to find out what is happening with the education precinct."
The documents also reveal the final business case has still not been submitted to Treasury for funding.
A July 6, 2020, internal email said the "milestone date" for the lodging of the case was September.
The draft communication and engagement strategy lists December 2020 as the "indicative timing" for the case to be submitted.
An internal email the next day, October 29, said the case will be completed in the first quarter of next year.
Mr Crakanthorp said there appeared to have been "a flurry of work on the education precinct recently".
"Although it has been delayed twice already, hopefully this bodes well for the final business case being submitted early next year," he said.
"The reality is that without a business case there is no education precinct. The sooner this business case is submitted the sooner we can get boots on the ground."
A November 3 internal email said the department was considering a base case and four options, but did not include costings.
It said the base case was to "do [the] minimum" and enforce catchment boundaries at primary schools, install up to seven demountable teaching spaces as demand dictates between 2021 and 2036 and "keep safe and operational works to address essential repairs required" at Newcastle High.
It said two options that "reflect the team discussion" were upgrading Newcastle High to have core facilities for a maximum capacity of 1530 students and general learning spaces for a maximum capacity of 1190, or establishing the precinct, which would involve upgrading the school and integrating a high school for specific purposes.
Two similar "fall back options" were included, pending the cost of the first options.
A department spokesman said it "undertakes due diligence to plan carefully for new and upgraded schools" and the government was "committed to the Newcastle Education Precinct meeting future enrolment growth with school facilities of the highest quality".
"A draft masterplan for the Newcastle Education Precinct was developed in 2019, and since then it has been undergoing an update," he said.
"It's anticipated that the updated draft masterplan will be completed by end of 2020. A business case is also currently being prepared for submission to the NSW Treasury by the end of this year."
Therefore, the spokesman said, some documents "need to remain privileged to protect the department's commercial position in future competitive tender processes".
"This is also the reason why the costs for the various options being considered and the work on the precinct currently remains privileged."
He said provision had been made in the masterplan for potential joint use opportunities, which may include sporting groups, councils and other community organisations, following an expression of interest process.
"Planning for the upgrades and expansions to existing schools require regulatory planning approvals, which carefully consider complex issues such as heritage of the existing buildings, traffic and transport and the environment," he said.
"Time lines vary considerably between projects, but it's common for school upgrades to take approximately three years from business case approval to completion."
The precinct appeared in the state budget's infrastructure statement under the heading of 'advanced planning and assurance review', with no further details.
The release of the documents follows the Herald's investigation into the precinct as part of its Walkley-Award winning Your Right To Know campaign.
The Herald reported in June that a draft masterplan outlined two options.
The first involved splitting the existing Newcastle High site evenly between it and the new primary school.
The second option involved establishing the primary school in the existing high school footprint and relocating Newcastle High to between National Park, Parry and Smith streets.
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