Tamihere, Seymour clash over charter school contract

Government trying to claw back millions of dollars in taxpayer funding.

ACT's David Seymour rejects criticism that the charter schools setup process is swamped in bureaucracy, and says one of the scheme's long-time backers only dropped out over a contractual dispute.

West Auckland's Te Whanau O Waipareira Trust, which was due to get its licence to start a bilingual Maori school in 2017 under the charter school model, has withdrawn its bid at the last minute.

David Seymour says negotiations are ongoing over getting back millions of dollars in taxpayer funding from the failed Whangaruru charter school.

Waipareira Trust chief executive and former Labour MP John Tamihere called the Government's policy an "unworkable mirage" and says Education Minister Hekia Parata and the under-secretary responsible for charter schools, Mr Seymour, acted in bad faith during negotiations.

Since charter schools were launched in New Zealand five years ago, Mr Tamihere has been a fan.

Last year Te Whanau O Waipareira applied for funding to set up a school, but a week ago it announced it was pulling out of the deal.

He told The Nation the final contract left the minister with too much power.

"We asked for reasonable amendments, one was that the powers of the minister be applied reasonably, another was a simple acknowledgement that Waipareira has Treaty of Waitangi status — hardly controversial requests," he said.

But Mr Seymour rejected that and told the programme the negotiations had broken down after the Treaty status request was made right at the end of a year-long process.

"He's playing games, because none of the things he just said were raised with me. It was simply about this last-minute attempt to include Waitangi Tribunal ruling 414 as legally binding throughout the contract, and we were never going to accept that," the ACT leader said.

"We are not here to relitigate what the Treaty of Waitangi is about. We are here to create high-performance schools for this education."

RAW DATA: Lisa Owen interviews John Tamihere and David Seymour on The Nation

Watch clips here.

Since charter schools were launched in New Zealand five years ago, John Tamihere from the Waipareira Trust has been a fan.

Last year Te Whanau O Waipareira applied for funding to set up a school, but a week ago it announced it was pulling out of the deal.

Now Tamihere has described the entire scheme as an unworkable mirage, laden down with too much red tape and not offering enough funding for applicants.

John Tamihere: This policy, as it’s rolled out, has become far too regulatory, far too difficult. The funding models are difficult. We can get through the funding modelling because of the contribution of our own whanau, but it’s just making it very tough to be able to start the school on the right foot with the right students.

Lisa Owen: We’re going to get to some of those other things later, but why exactly did you pull out of this proposal?

Well, when you see the contract, it’s quite mind-boggling. The minister has extraordinary over-reaching powers.

What do you mean by that?

The minister can over-reach and suspend at will on her view of what’s going on in the school. What we wanted to do was have her powers read reasonably – that’s an inherent ask, that’s cool – and we also wanted her to acknowledge that we’re not a faith-based school, we’re not a Muslim-based school of special character, and we are very much a bilingual school, English being the medium of education. To do that, Waipareira went to the Waitangi Tribunal in the ‘90s, and I just wanted the acknowledgement of that relationship with the Crown.

Because what Mr Seymour would say is that you’ve been offered exactly the same contract as everybody else, so what’s the problem?

We’re not the same as everybody else. We’ve got a West Auckland community. If you think Westies are the same as anybody else, you’ve got another think coming. If you think the natives in West Auckland are the same as others too, you’ve got a bit of a difference. So you can’t wave a wand and pretend that you can have a fit-for-purpose education process operating without acknowledging the special nature of the communities you’re dealing with.

I wonder do you think that they need you more than you need them?

Well, look, I’ve got to say this. That anyone entering tranche three—So there’s three iterations of this school that’s been rolled out. First movers got a marvellous upfront dollar drop; second movers were tightened again; but the third movers – that’s our tranche that were offered contracts – were over-regulated, and the funding model, if you don’t have funding support like Waipareira’s willing to put into our community, anyone entering now is going to be in significant difficulties.

Do you think that’s part of the problem? I think it was $1.6 million you got as a set-up cost to begin with, and now they’re down to about $450,000. Is that why the people just can’t come forward to set up these schools?

Well, anyone entering now is going to have to have a partnership where significant dollars are front-end loaded elsewhere. An example is Hobsonville Point College up in West Auckland, the newest one. $110 million worth of capital and land on a start-up and no requirement for numbers, and yet a significant staffing representation in a state school. You can’t compete against that unless you’re given a fairer deal. We like the idea of the permissive nature of charter schools, partnership schools, but it’s not going to work under this structure.

So in this round that you were bidders in, there were only three applicants that were accepted out of about 26. What does that tell us? What does that tell us about the quality of the proposals?

I don’t know, but I know other proposers, and there were some outstanding proposals. But I’m not the government and I wasn’t a bureaucrat sitting on the panel making these decisions.

But you think the quality is still there, coming through?

I wouldn’t know. You would have to ask the panel.

What does it mean about the process? That perhaps they’re turned off?

One is a funding issue. So only so many can get through. But some of them would have been outstanding out of that 22, I would imagine.

So is Waipareira the squeaky wheel or are other people unhappy, other people who are already in this process, other charter schools? What do you know about that?

Oh no, there’s a lot of people that are unhappy with the regulatory approach being taken by Mr Seymour, who’s a free marketeer and what have you. So I regret David’s not here now because I had a lot of time for the cut of the bloke, this young bloke entering in to make a difference. But I just think he’s been ground down by resistance in the bureaucracy, and it happens in local government as it does in central government, and over-reaching regulation now which he should push back against.

Are you saying the National Government is trying to undermine this?

No, I’m saying bureaucrats always do, to make their business case work for them.

So what should the undersecretary do?

He should rationalise clearly why we can’t have three small amendments to a 47-page contract by advising us why it’s prejudicial or discriminatory to the rights of the Crown, big monsters that they are.

So what happens now for you guys? Is that it, game over, or what do you do?

No, we’ll go back to the drawing board. We might go special character and make an application there. We might do something else. But we’ve got to get a game-changer out West. We’ve got 14 secondary schools, and one-third of secondary school students bus away or car away. The congestion costs are tough.

But in saying that, are you definitely not going down the charter school line now?

Not under these rules. Look, when David entered Parliament, he was a lion, and that was great. But often lions turn into lambs once the pervasive nature of the institution gets to them. And I regret I think this is what’s happened to Seymour. And I think he was great at the start, and you just start to see them getting worn down.

So do you think these charter schools are being set up to fail right from the get-go?

Well, the problem with the tranche three schools is because they’re ‘bums on seat’ funded and you  need X numbers in, regretfully, some people are going to take a whole bunch of kids who have been exited from the state system. They are the wrong fit for purpose for a start-up school. Because when you start a school up, you have to ensure that the inaugural intake sets the whole culture of the school.

So simply put, are you saying these schools are being forced to take the most difficult children in order to get the numbers up, in order to get the funding to set up, and that’s a recipe for disaster?

There’s no doubt that that is what’s going to occur in the near future.


Charter schools were brought in as part of Act's Confidence and Supply agreement with the National Government after the 2011 election.

Act MP David Seymour is Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Minister of Education and has responsibility for charter schools.

He didn't want to debate with Tamihere, but I spoke to him earlier and began by asking him how he thinks charter schools are going.

David Seymour: We have one of the most unequal education systems in the Western world, particularly if you’re Maori, and so that’s why I get out of bed every day to build the partnership school Kura Hourua project for. It is because it is part of the broader New Zealand project.

Lisa Owen: Got that, that this your aim, Mr Seymour.

So that’s the context—

I hear you saying you’re not getting there.

That’s the context in which we’re starting from, so it’s a shame that The Nation hasn’t taken the time to look at that issue or what are doing in partnership schools for five years until you find somebody complaining. And let me dismiss that complaint very easily. Mr Tamihere was given the draft contract and the funding formula when the applications went out last August. By October he’d officially become an applicant. He had signed up to negotiate and apply in good faith. Earlier this year, the authorisation board said that his school should be one of the schools that would be accepted. The negotiating process began. He subsequently— This is important, Lisa. You got me on here to explain this. He subsequently went to the media, despite the fact that he was supposed to be negotiating in good faith on the 9th of June this year and then introduced new criteria, that there would be reasonableness of the minister, that the minister would be bound by the contract and that the contract would have the Waitangi Tribunal 414—

Understood. So are you suggesting—?

I’m sorry, Lisa. You’re not actually—

Mr Seymour, I’ve given you an opportunity—

You’re not actually allowing me to tell the story.

I’m wanting to ask you if you think Mr Tamihere is using this as leverage if he had all that information ahead of time? What’s his motivation, Mr Seymour?

Let me just complete the story, because it’s actually important. Another 10 seconds, and I can do it. He actually, having publicised the expectation that there would be a school, introduced new conditions, such as the fact that the Waitangi Tribunal ruling 414 would be binding in the partnership with his school. Now, he hasn’t raised any of the other concerns with me. In fact, I spoke to him and we agreed that it was simply a question of wanting this Waitangi Tribunal ruling to apply to the contract, and I said to him, ‘We are not here to relitigate what the Treaty of Waitangi is about. We are here to create high-performance schools for this education—‘

So is he just playing games, Mr Seymour?

Absolutely he’s playing games, because none of the things he just said were raised with me. It was simply about this last-minute attempt to include Waitangi Tribunal ruling 414 as legally binding throughout the contract, and we were never going to accept that.

Okay, well—

And he knew that when he went into this process almost a year ago now.

Let’s move on from that, then. The Waipareira Trust has bailed out of this process. Can you afford to lose applicants of that calibre?

Well, yes, we can, because if that is the kind of behaviour we get from them, if that’s the way that they do business, then perhaps, frankly, they are not applicants of great calibre. It would have been fabulous to have the proposal that was initially put forward. The authorisation board were very enthusiastic about the proposal. It was actually a lot of good work.

Mr Seymour, are you going to bring someone in from the B-list, then? Because the Waipareira Trust was down to the final three, are you going to bring someone else in?

What we’re doing is we’ve just announced a fourth round of partnership school applications. As you said in the previous interview, we had 26 last time.

But in this round are you going to go back and choose someone else?

No, it’s too late, because there’s actually a process to these things. And had Mr Tamihere not chosen to introduce new criteria at the very end of the process, we might have had time to do that, but now we do not.

So are you getting the kind of applicants that you want?

I’d like to see a lot more applicants. I’d like to see a lot more of these schools, but what we’ve seen is that we’ve been able to approve three schools, one of whom Mr Tamihere dropped out, and I hope that we have further applicants in the next round.

If you’d like to see more, why aren’t you getting those, and where do you want them to come from?

Well, actually, it’s not for me to decide. The criteria are that they must be targeting students who are in high need, part of the Government’s target groups, and that they have innovative methods. And we’re actually seeing that. There’s a lot of—

Yeah, but when you say that you’d like to see them, you personally, what would you like? Who would you like to see coming forward?

Well, I think you’re misunderstanding how this policy works, Lisa. The way that this policy works is that it is ground-up. It’s not dictated by the Government. The beauty of it is that we get people like Nick Hyde at the Vanguard Military School, like Sita Selupe at Rise Up, like Alwyn Poole at South Auckland Middle School and Middle School West Auckland, educators that might not have found a place to engage with kids in the conventional system, but they are and they are turning kids’ lives around. And let me give you one example.

All right, hang on. I just want to talk to you about that. Mr Tamihere says that some of the charter schools that are already established, that they aren’t happy with the funding or the bureaucracy. There is a disputes process, so how many disputes have you got that are under review from these schools?

Well, let me go back to this original question of the project—

No, I’m just wondering how many disputes have you got?

The answer’s one. The answer’s one.

Just one? Really?

So let me go back to the original project – is that we need to do something different and we need to do a lot better. And I have got used to the relentless negativity, such as The Nation refusing to talk about this policy for five years until they thought there was something wrong, but nonetheless—

Mr Tamihere—

…we are continuously improving the policy, and I’m very pleased with the way that’s going.

Mr Tamihere has said that some of these charter schools that are already established are not happy, so I’ll ask you again – how many mediated disputes are underway?

There is one sponsor who has worked through a series of issues. They raised seven issues, and at this point, we have resolved all but one of their issues.

So seven issues?

And that’s normal. It would be incredible if there was not tension in a new policy, but again it speaks to the relentless negativity of people like yourself, The Nation, Mr Tamihere—

I’m trying to talk to you about this policy now, Mr Seymour.

…who are more interested in beating down than focusing on the positives.

All right, let’s look at some of the facts. The first charter schools in 2014 got about $1.7 million, wasn’t it, as set-up costs? Currently, in the latest round, what is the funding that you would get? 450,000 is it for set-up?

No, it’s not quite correct. It depends if it’s a primary school or a high school.

Okay, so just give me a ballpark figure.

Oh, probably around about $600,000 to $700,000, and the reason that we made that change is that it’s all very well for Mr Tamihere to talk about $110 million for Hobsonville Point, but the simple fact of the matter is that we want to open a large number of partnership schools rapidly. And if you want to get state funding for capital and all of the things that Rototuna or Hobsonville Point have received, then of course you’re going to have to go through a much more stringent process. What we’ve done is given a fast path for people with innovative ideas for engaging kids to open up schools.

Aren’t you concerned, though, that you’re potentially cutting out good education providers out of that market because that’s just not enough to get them on the ladder?

Well, of course that’s always going to be a concern, and it will be true that some people will have propositions that they cannot fund. But just remember that the fundamental underpinning of this policy is that a kid that goes to a partnership school, Kura Houroa, gets not a dollar more nor a dollar less than they would have received in funding at a state school. And so what we have done is ensured that we have a model that means that if you have innovative ideas, if you have the initiative and if you can deliver a result, then you get total freedom to innovate and engage kids, and I think that is something worth celebrating.

Okay. Let’s talk about—

I think the results of those other schools should be celebrated.

Let’s talk about one of those schools that did get total freedom. One school that did get a large chunk of funding was Whangaruru, and that was a failed charter school.

That’s right.

It got about $5 million, didn’t it?

It was a bit less than that.

In taxpayer money.

But it did get a lot of money, yes.

And they bought land which they still own. So what’s happened with that? Is the taxpayer getting any of that money back? Where are you at with that?

So there is a process underway to renegotiate where we’re up to with the Whangaruru and with the trust that we engaged with. We are obviously in negotiations recovering as much money as possible. But just remember—

Do you know how much? Have you managed to get any back?

No, I can’t prejudice that. So we’re under a process—

So you haven’t got any?

No, there’s a process. You know very well, Lisa, that there’s a process going on. I’m not going to start negotiating on TV.

So you can’t say yet whether you’ve managed to recover any of those funds?

Now you’re catching on. That’s right. Just remember that that school was filled with children who had very little hope from the education system in the area to date, and we spent money finding a new way to educate them. That’s what I talked about at the beginning with the New Zealand project.

But that particular school failed, Mr Seymour.

Yeah, and of course the relentlessly negative, like yourself, probably would never have even tried. Well, I’m proud that we tried. Yes, we failed, but I’d much rather close a failing school than continue to let a school that is underperforming ruin generations of children.

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