A rural Northland charter school that has cost taxpayers $2.4 million this year, has only 48 students enrolled, despite the fact it is funded for a minimum of 71 students.
The Ministry of Education confirmed if Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru closes, the school has no legal obligation to return the land, funded with $620,000 of taxpayer money, to the Government.
The school's opening on February 10 was followed by a large drop in enrolment, consistent understaffing, the resignation of a co-director and strong criticism from the Education Review Office.
The kura did not respond to Northern Advocate phone calls or emails over the last week. The school, located on a farm 65km north-west of Whangarei, caters for Years 9-13 students who typically have been on the margins of the education system.
Sponsored by Nga Parirau Matauranga Charitable Trust, the school is one of five charter schools, or "partnership" schools, that opened this year. That includes another in Whangarei, that has performed well.
Charter schools are funded by the Government but set their own curriculum, school hours, holidays and pay rates.
Ministry of Education head of sector enablement and support, Katrina Casey, confirmed Te Kura Hourua ki Whangaruru had no legal obligation to return the land to the ministry should it fail.
"If a [charter] school closes before the end of its contract, we would seek recovery of any unused funding or available assets through a commercial negotiation process," Ms Casey said.
The school received a $1.68 million grant to set up, of which $620,000 was used to buy the 81ha property. It has since received $754,280 in operating costs - $2.4 million in total. Documents released under the Official Information Act show the ERO was highly critical of nearly all aspects of the kura's operation, following a visit on April 9. Governance facilitator, Chris Saunders, reported that ERO was particularly concerned about the struggling board, lack of school culture, dysfunctional relationships and low morale, and weaknesses with all aspects of curriculum planning and delivery. ERO extended their assessment period to August, with a full report due out soon. All new schools are appointed a governance facilitator and Mr Saunders oversaw both Northland charter schools until his contract finished at the end of June.
When Whangaruru opened it had 61 students enrolled but currently only has 48 students, Ms Casey said.
"There isn't a legal minimum number of students that the school is required to have. They are funded for a minimum of 71 students," Ms Casey said.
Whangaruru has been understaffed by 1.5 teachers for a number of months. In March, one of the kura's two co-directors, Glen Sadler, resigned for reasons that are unclear. Mr Sadler was also the business director and his niece Natasha Sadler was a co-director, in-charge of curriculum.
Following his resignation the trust changed the leadership structure and created the position of CEO, Ms Casey said. The school is on its second interim CEO, while the trust recruits a permanent replacement.
Charter schools were part of the Act Party's confidence and supply agreement with the National Party. On Thursday the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, announced four more charter schools starting in 2015, including a third for Northland.