Don’t Worry; The Taxpayer Has Deep Pockets!

This week, with the second anniversary of the devastating 22 February 2011 Christchurch earthquake approaching, I’ll be blogging about several issues relevant to our situation here in Christchurch and natural disasters in general.

I have never been the biggest fan of bureaucracy.  Personally, I feel the definition of a bureaucrat is a person with far too few skills and little common sense who is paid way too much to sit behind a desk all day and try to be as obstructive and obtuse as he or she possibly can be.  (This does not define 100% of all public servants but a good chunk of them.)

The Canterbury and Christchurch earthquakes have pretty much shattered any last little vestige of faith in bureaucracy and Government agencies in general that may have been cowering in some little dark corner of my mind.  Okay.  I admit that I do understand sometimes why it is in place: to protect us against those who would otherwise try to take advantage of Joe Public.  My understanding extends to bureaucracy attempting to stomp out dodgy traders and people, and setting up hurdles to stop people out from getting a quick buck from hurting people like your little old sweet Nana.  But sometimes the bureaucrats go a little (or maybe a lot) power crazy and stomp on the good people too.  They frustrate good people who have the best intentions or can even bring inspiration, wealth, knowledge and creativity to the community and, overall, hurt the economy and public rather than protect them at the expense of stopping the small minority of bad guys.

The Minister of Education today announced that 7 Christchurch schools would be shutting and a further 12 would merge by 2014 at earliest.  This, to me, is so opportunistic and shows bureaucracy gone so bad, it’s not even funny.

Let me get this straight.  We’re not even 2 years out from a devastating earthquake that has changed the face of Christchurch foreverDemolition in the CBD is nearly over, and the Government has declared the rebuild is only starting in earnest this year.  Yet, somehow, the Government (more likely the bureaucrats) has a crystal ball, knowing exactly where people will be living and how many schools they will need?

I call BS.

When I was still living in the USA, District 57 (our local primary, elementary and intermediate school district) was calling for Mount Prospect (my home-town) to shut down all the primary and elementary schools except two: Lions Park and Fairview.  The district shut the other schools, either renting them out to special interest groups or selling them all together.  In the end, most (if not all) other primary/elementary schools were torn down.

The plan was for Lions Park and Fairview to be redeveloped.  The old schools would be demolished and new, future-proofed schools would take their place.  The community didn’t really buy into this; if there was little to no need for the schools we had, and we were demolishing them or selling them off, why should we replace the two remaining schools?  After the third or fourth time on the local ballot, though, the district got its way; Lions Park and Fairview would be replaced by two brand-new schools that could hold all the students the district would have, plus have room to spare.

The two schools were demolished and rebuilt, both in the same style.  The problem, once they were completed?  There wasn’t enough room for all the students!  So they went back to the community for more money to expand those schools or build a new one.

The community said no.  There was only so much they were willing to shell out.  The public hadn’t really needed the new schools but it had passed by the slimmest majorities, and, with budget blow-outs (as is normally the case with public projects like this), the community’s appetite for feeding more money into education had soured.

The poor kids suffered in the end, with overcrowded facilities and temporary classrooms in the parking lot.

And so, let us turn to the current education situation in Christchurch.  For some reason, bureaucrats make the rather flawed assumption that workers coming to Christchurch for the rebuild will be single young men, but looking at the projections made by private companies (one of which I used for our 2013 TEC Investment Plan), the expectation in reality is that people of all ages will come to rebuild.  They might have a wife or husband, or a partner, and they might have kids too.  In hard economic times, people flock to the jobs like moths to a flame.  The Christchurch population is expected to grow, and the rebuild will fuel a steady growth in almost all sectors of our local economy, including personal services like beauty therapy (which we train our students in).

(As a side note, TEC was trying to argue that industries not directly linked to the rebuild would not grow; however, the report as mentioned above indicated that nearly every industry and every sector would experience larger growth than the national average.)

The rebuild process is expected to take 10 to 20 years, and many people, I am sure, will be used to Christchurch being home by then.  They’ll want to stay in their new home, and the demand for essential education services like primary and intermediate schools will be high.

So, I see a similar scenario playing out in Christchurch that we had in Mount Prospect.  The Government will shutter schools, merging some and wiping others off the map, all prematurely.  The Government will expect to save money in the short term, which they may do.  Then, the signs of the rebuild will become apparent, and there will be too few schools, and schools in the wrong neighbourhoods, and the Government will have to build new schools, or significantly remodel or add on to existing schools, to meet demand.

This will cost the taxpayer a lot of money in the end, and it will more costly to follow this exercise than it would be to keep the status quo in the short term to see how events unfold and how the population settles than to shutter and demolish then rebuild and expand.

I said this to the previous Labour Government when they were trying to shut down private tertiary establishments (PTEs) like ours (their philosophy is “public tertiary education is best”, but all the research points to the opposite), and I’ll say it to the current National Government; once you eliminate job opportunities for dedicated, hard-working, well-educated, experienced teachers and creative, inclusive, team-building, community-leading administrators, you lose a lot of them for good.  They will not return if you need them again, and, if you’re trying to create a knowledge-rich economy, you’re going about it the wrong way by alienating and frustrating those most passionate about building it.

This, in turn, will create a shortage in experienced teachers and administrators, leading the Government to have to pump more money and resources into educating new teachers and administrators, or enticing disillusioned teachers and administrators back to the profession.  This means the taxpayer will have to dig deeper to fix a situation that didn’t need to be created in the first place if the bureaucrats and the Government used their common sense in the first place.

But don’t worry; the taxpayer will bail you bureaucrats and the Government out.  We’ve got deep pockets!