‘Contrary to public interest’: School planning data kept secret

A secret document on projected public school enrolments and capacity in South Australia is being kept under wraps because of concerns it could cause “unnecessary stress and concern” for the community and harm future planning around land acquisition and zoning.

Feb 08, 2021, updated Feb 08, 2021
Photo: AAP

Photo: AAP

The Education Department argues it’s an “internal working” document which will be used in future Cabinet decisions about “acquiring land tenders, school zoning, capital works for education sites and engagement with the public on these related matters”.

The Opposition requested the data under Freedom of Information laws, but the department has refused to release it, saying it would be “contrary to the public interest” because it would “prejudice the integrity and viability of the department’s decision-making functions”.

In a letter to the Opposition, the department explains the document “is subject to frequent review and updates”.

“The release of such projected information at a single point in time could result in unnecessary and unwarranted negative impacts on members of the community in the areas the subject of discussion in the document,” the letter states.

“It may result in unnecessary stress and concern for members of the community currently at or in the vicinity of sites referred to in the documents.

“The release of this information is unlikely to promote the public interest in transparency of government decision-making but would be reasonably likely to lead to the communication of misinformation and misconceptions about the projected enrolments and capacity across education sites.”

The Opposition has questioned what the department has to “hide” in refusing to release the information, which it sought for this school year and next.

“It’s some of the most basic and fundamental data that you can seek in the education portfolio anywhere in the world,” Opposition education spokesman Blair Boyer told InDaily.

“How big are our schools, what is their maximum capacity and what is their current capacity? It is something that parents would be interested in because they would want to have a bit of an idea about what schools around where they live could accommodate their child and it’s certainly something the Opposition would like to see as we inevitably make plans around what needs to be done in the state’s education system.”

Boyer said there was “absolutely no reason to keep this document secret and it flies in the face of the commitments that (Premier) Steven Marshall and (Education Minister) John Gardner have made about being open and transparent”.

“I think it would lead parents and carers rightfully to wonder whether or not there isn’t something to hide here,” he said.

“Things like plans to rezone or questions to be asked potentially around where money is currently being spent and whether or not that aligns with areas that need new capacity or more capacity as per the data we are trying to get access to.

“It is hard to imagine that there is a good reason why you would not provide access to this data.

“The options to me are simply either the government is concerned about what it might show in terms of where it’s building extra capacity as part of (moving) Year 7 into high school or possibly more to the point where it’s not building capacity.

“Either they don’t want access so we can’t cross check that, or they have a plan of doing some re-zoning and don’t want us to be able to see where that might occur.”

InDaily in your inbox. The best local news every workday at lunch time.
By signing up, you agree to our User Agreement andPrivacy Policy & Cookie Statement. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Education Minister John Gardner rejected that, telling InDaily: “There are no zoning changes being proposed other than those that have already been publicly discussed, such as around the new northern and southern schools currently under construction.”

The department says the document contains information which, if released, “would have a substantial adverse effect on the financial or property interests of public sector agencies”.

“Disclosing information which is considered commercially sensitive, as it may identify possible future land acquisitions or influence market valuation in relation to a site that will potentially be placed on the open market for sale, could compromise the sale process and negatively impact the ability to obtain an appropriate acquisition or return on the sale of a public asset,” the letter states.

“In addition, it would open the process to accusations of bias, and diminish the potential value a competitive tender process represents to the Government on behalf of the public.

“Finally, disclosure may result in the artificial and unwarranted inflation or deflation of land values in the vicinity of sites referred to in the document.”

The department also says disclosure of the document “could reasonably be expected to have a substantial negative impact on the performance of the functions of the agency”.

It says it “would impede the ability of the agency to implement particular projects in an effective and cost efficient manner and damage the reputation of the agency in managing and delivering such projects, which would adversely affect the agency’s ability to manage and deliver high value projects in the future”.

The department says it has “balanced the above against the public interest of access to documents, the importance and relevance of the documents and the need to demonstrate that proper process and performance of the agency is not hindered”.

It says “on this occasion the public interest favouring non-disclosure carries greater weight”.

The Opposition has sought an internal review of the decision not to release the document “and then if that is not successful we will take it to the Ombudsman”.

When asked about it at a recent press conference, Gardner said he doesn’t get involved in the FOI process – “it’s illegal to do so”.

He said the former Independent Commissioner Against Corruption had “made it very clear to successive governments, after he had some concerns brought to his attention about the former government, that ministers shouldn’t really be telling FOI officers what to do”.

“I take that very, very seriously so I’m not familiar with what’s happened there,” he said.

“I have every confidence an Education Department public servant would be following the law.”

Local News Matters
Copyright © 2024 InDaily.
All rights reserved.