Bones of Contention And An Inconveniently Strong Woman

The School Farm – So What Was So Contencious?

One of the aspects of Rangiora High School that distinguishes it from other state secondary co-educational schools and gives it a special character is the Rangiora High School Farm. The original Board of Governors purchased the first piece of land for a farm in 1912 and added to this asset as money and land became available. In 2006 the school farm was 40 hectares and made a significant contribution to the school’s special character. When I was first appointed as principal, I gained great satisfaction from observing our students’ enjoyment when working with the animals and being on the land as part of their curriculum programme.

In 2007, due to a change in Council zoning, 20 hectares of the 40 hectare school farm land was sold by the Board of Trustees at auction. The school received $7.7 million from this sale. The remaining 20 hectares of the school’s farm is still owned by the school, is productive, pays its way and is used every day to provide land based courses for students from Year 9 – 13.

The funds from the sale of the farm land were (and still should be) held in the school accounts as is required by the school’s auditor and legislation. It was identified as the Farmland Capital Account. The interest earned from the Farmland Capital was also held in the school’s accounts and was identified as the Farmland Funds Interest Account. To ensure absolute transparency the Board established a charitable Trust in 2007. It was the Board’s intention to use the Rangiora High School Education Trust to establish a commercial arm separate from the educational arm of the school. This was a model used by other New Zealand schools such as Dilworth College and St Peter’s College. Board and Trust members explored this structure when visiting these schools in the North Island with a view to appointing a CEO to the proposed commercial arm and have me as Principal responsible for educational leadership of the school. This was a structure which I supported and it is unfortunate that it was not implemented as subsequent issues around dealing with assets were the main bones of contention around the board table.

The moneys received in 2007 from the sale at auction of 20-hectares of the school’s 40-hectare farm were invested in three separate New Zealand Bank accounts in the name of Rangiora High School. As the Board’s CEO I administered the moneys held in the school account. These moneys were always accounted for separately in the school’s annual accounts, from the operations grant funding, as is required under the Lands Act 1949 [High School Reserves].

It was the Board’s policy at the time of the sale to reinvest a portion of the Farmland Funds interest back into the Capital Funds account in order to retain the relative value of the fund while the remainder was to be used for the benefit of students. This expenditure was itemised accordingly. The school’s auditors have confirmed each year since 2008 that this was an appropriate way to manage the Capital Funds account and the Farmland Funds interest account. From 2007 to 2015 the Capital Funds account grew in value to $9 million. During that 8-year period the Board spent approximately $1.5 million from the Farmland Funds interest account on resources for the school and its students. This was funding additional to the Government’s operations funding approved by the Board in an amount that other school’s could only dream of.

The legal advice the board received in 2008 in respect of the use of the Capital Funds account moneys was drawn from the Education Lands Act 1949 [High School Reserves]. The Act remained silent on the matter of interest moneys. During the course of my tenure we never deviated from that interpretation; being that any use of the moneys spent from the Capital Funds account had to be “like for like”. That is, because we had sold farm land, we were obliged to buy farmland in keeping with the original character of the school farm.

This is something that was disputed by the Ministry of Education whose legal interpretation of the Education Lands Act 1949 [High School Reserves] differed from the Board’s. The Ministry of Education insisted that there was no restriction on the use of this money which split the Board and created a huge bone of contention that led to deep devisions on the Board.

I was very gratified when the school’s lawyer confirmed at my Employment Relations Authority Hearing in 2016 that it was still her professional opinion that the ‘like for like’ legal advice given to the Board in 2008, was the correct interpretation of the intention of the Education Lands Act 1949 [High School Reserves]. The law is quite clear, Rangiora High School’s Capital Funds cannot be used for other purposes. The Commissioner and the Ministry of Education erred in their duty of care of the school’s resources. This was and still is a source of contention within the community and amongst the school’s alumni.

Following the Canterbury earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 the membership of the board changed. Four hostile board members emerged over the next three years all of whom appeared at odds with the strong, articulate, professional woman who led the school. It was during those terbulant years that I found myself in constant conflict with these individuals about the caveat.

The beginning of the end of my career came when I refused to acquiesceto an unlawful instruction from the Deputy Board Chair to raise a deposit cheque for a property that “the Board” wished to purchase. At the time of this telephone conversation the Board did not have Ministry of Education approval for the purchase as was required under the Education Act 1989, nor was there a notice of motion recorded in the Board Minutes. The proposed purchase was also problematic given only half of the Board had actually viewed the property when the instruction was given me. As well the purchase did not comply with the Board’s own purchase criteria, and the purchase price was $1 million over the amount approved for any farm purchased by the Board. Most alarming however was the property belonged to the Board member who had organised the viewing and had only disclosed that information on site.

When I was suspended in 2015 Rangiora High School had a $9 million in its Capital Assets portfolio – unpresedented in a state secondary school. The Education Lands Act, 1949 provides a legislative caveat for those moneys through High School Reserves. When the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata sacked the Board in January 2015 and conveniently appointed Beverley Moore (the author of the Specialist Advisor’s Report that had precipitated their sacking) as Commissioner, she assumed all the powers and responsibilities of the Board. However as the Minister of Education’s appointment she was no longer responsible to the Rangiora High School and North Canterbury community. Under the Education Act, 1989 she was only answerable to the Minister of Education. In essence, she could do what she liked with the schools assets – and she did.

I have always maintained that I do not say anything unless I am holding a piece of paper in my hand that supports my assertions. You can imagine the size of the file that exists to support these jottings. As well you can imagine the files that sit as yet unopened …

To be continued …