Specialist school at crossroads

SPECIAL needs children in Wellington Shire are facing an uncertain future, as the area’s only specialist education school is nearing its functional limit.

Already stretched to its student capacity across two campuses – one of them a stop-gap temporary solution – Sale Specialist School is pleading for new facilities to accommodate special needs students across Wellington Shire.

The school is nearing its capacity of students, with 77 enrolled across the two campuses as at the start of term three this year.

On paper, the school could take another three students, however in reality the school council asserts it is impossible, as there is simply no spare space available.

Earlier this month, local volunteer Helen McDowell had to stop her weekly music lessons with the junior students at the school, as there was simply not enough room for her piano at the school.

Where most other schools have a full gymnasium, Sale Specialist School has a quadrangle and a shipping container to store its sporting and other miscellaneous equipment at its Raymond St campus.

Its Guthridge Pde campus, which houses the school’s middle years students, was a temporary solution of four portable classrooms joined together at the back of Sale College’s junior campus.

The agreement to use the space is coming to an end.

The situation is becoming desperate for the school. If no reprieve is granted by the start of the 2013 school year, it will not be able to take on any new students.

Any special needs children in Wellington Shire will then have three options – be put on the school’s waiting list, travel to Bairnsdale’s specialist school, or attend a mainstream school.

The school’s council posits that to be able to update its facilities to properly accommodate special needs students in the shire, it will require two hectares of land to spread across and build appropriate infrastructure.

The school’s hopes were buoyed in 2010 through Wellington Shire Council’s Sale, Wurruk and Longford Structure Plan, which outlined the potential for an education precinct development on either the Sale-Maffra Rd or Cobains Rd.

Citing noise concerns from the nearby RAAF base airfield, the Cobains Rd site has been ruled unsuitable for use by the Specialist School.

Earlier this year, the school confirmed it preferred the land outlined on the Sale-Maffra Rd. However, when the private land owner was approached, the owner stated they no longer wished to sell the earmarked land.

While the school, along with representatives from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD), considers the feasibility of purchasing an alternate block of land at the Sale-Maffra Rd site, the school is still desperately searching for temporary reprieve to its accommodation crisis.

“We currently have 10 possible new enrolments for 2013….and expect another five to seven new enrolments for 2013 before the end of the year, following trends over the past nine years,” a letter from the Specialist School Council said.

“Four students will have turned 18 years of age and leave the school at the end of 2012.

“In order to avoid a waiting list for enrolment, we need DEECD to take responsibility and provide short term accommodation that is fit for purpose, safe and secure in time for the commencement of the 2013 school year.

“School council is not prepared to spend its hard earned savings on emergency/temporary accommodation.

“That money is earmarked for facilities and resources at the new school, when it eventuates.”

The school council also voiced its frustration on how it was overlooked by both the Federal Government’s Building the Education Revolution stimulus and the 2012-2013 state budget.

“For Sale Specialist School to miss out in the last State Budget for funding for a new school is beyond comprehension,” the council said.

“The students and staff at Sale Specialist School are as much deserving of modern facilities for teaching and learning as those at any other public school.”

Education Minister Martin Dixon told the Gippsland Times his department was “working with the school to identify a suitable site for a possible future relocation which could bring the school’s two campuses together on the one site.”

“We understand the community frustration, but we are faced with fixing so many problems left behind by the previous Labor Government,” Mr Dixon said.

“This Government is committed to providing quality education choices for children with special needs and is why we made the largest single capital investment in education for special and autistic children in more than a decade in our first budget.

“The needs of all schools across the state, including Sale Specialist School, will be considered in future budget processes.”