The Victorian Government is taking an opposition MP to court over what has been called an “extraordinary attempt” to stop undisclosed information about Victoria’s biggest educational project going public.
- Victorian Liberal MP Wendy Lovell has lodged multiple FOI requests for information about a new educational project
- Her requests have been denied and she is accusing the State Government of hiding information
- The controversial education project has split the regional community of Shepparton
Liberal MP Wendy Lovell has filed multiple FOI requests since September for access to an eight-page risk management report into a major project which will merge four public high schools in Shepparton.
The project has been dubbed “revolutionary” for country education, and will soon become the largest school in Victoria, housing 3,000 students.
Ms Lovell told the ABC the Victorian Government was going to “incredible lengths” to hide information, which she said would alter the lives of hundreds of families.
“Every family that has a child in the state education system at a secondary level will be impacted by this plan,” Ms Lovell said.
“These families have the right to be fully informed.”
The Department of Education rejected Ms Lovell’s requests to access information about potential risks surrounding the Shepparton Education Plan and the Greater Shepparton Secondary College.
The decision was overruled by Public Access Deputy Commissioner Joanne Kummrow, who last month ordered the government to release the pages.
The project has split the regional community in half, with some adamant it will revive education and others arguing the change will unsettle students, encourage bullying, and limit educational options.
From next week, secondary students will be scattered across three separate locations as contractors demolish and start a rebuild at the Shepparton High School site.
In her written ruling, Commissioner Kummrow said she did not believe releasing the information would go against public interest.
“I acknowledge there is concern within the local community in relation to the Shepparton Education Plan,” she said.
“There is a degree of sensitivity in relation to issues discussed in the documents.”
The Victorian Government has now taken the matter to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).
Ms Lovell called the move an attempt to hide information from the people of Shepparton and said the government was wasting thousands of dollars in public money to overturn the ruling.
“This is an extraordinary step to hide whatever is in that document from the families in Shepparton,” Ms Lovell said.
“I have no idea what’s in this document that is so detrimental, but I think now we see the desperate attempt to hide this information, we should all be concerned about what is in this document.”
‘Unable to comment’ says department
A spokesperson for the Department would not comment when questioned why thousands of dollars in public money was being spent trying to overrule the decision.
“The Department fully complies with FOI legislation and has released a number of other documents related to this project,” they said in a statement.
“As the matter is before VCAT, we are unable to comment further.”
In a written response to Ms Lovell detailing its decision, the Department of Education said disclosing the information would “provide an opportunity” to publicise and exploit risks.
“[It] would cause confusion in the community if disclosed given their current status as superseded documents under review,” the letter read.
“The documents are important internal tools that enable the Department to manage risk in an ongoing and evolving process.”
More transparency needed
There are now calls for the Department of Education to assess its transparency and communication around the project as hundreds of students gear up for the first day of school next week.
Some parents have told the ABC that communication between the Department and the public had been inconsistent and that they felt the merger had been thrust upon them.
One mother, Mandy Simpson, said there had been minimal consultation in the lead up to the project being announced.
She said some parents were also dealing with issues around timetables, uniforms, and transport.
“We still have no clear bus route and timetable,” Ms Simpson said.
“I have spoken to the bus coordinator, the bus company, and the school and they have all given me different bus routes, bus stops, and timetables.
“It feels like they are presenting this fairy floss idea and ignore any issues raised by our community.”
Independent Member for Shepparton Suzanna Sheed told the ABC that as with all major projects there “would be hiccups”.
While she would not comment on the VCAT process, she said she was disappointed Ms Lovell was taking a negative attitude one week from the term beginning.
“It’ll be inevitable to have things that will need to be sorted out as we move forward,” she said.
“Look at the NDIS and other major programs [but] the people we’re speaking to are really excited.
“It’s an opportunity and I think it’s really a very exciting time to see young people have this opportunity when there have been years of decline in education.”