ABOVE: The meeting at the Evans Head Catholic Church about not rebuilding St Joseph’s School at the Woodburn site.
“When can we go back?”
A mother described her daughter’s response every time they drive past St Joseph’s Catholic School in Woodburn.
She was at a packed meeting at Evans Head Catholic Church last night, Tuesday, June 6. The church site has been the temporary school for St Joseph’s students for 443 days.
Parents, former teachers, school staff and community members were riled up before the Diocese of Lismore Catholic Schools director Adam Spencer got up to speak.
Mr Spencer made it clear.
St Joseph’s will not be rebuilt in its existing location.
A Catholic School Review Commission report of 10 flood-impacted schools had concluded that three Catholic schools would not be rebuilt on their pre-flood sites.
This is Trinity in Lismore, Our Lady Help of Christians Primary School in South Lismore and St Joseph’s in Woodburn.
“The decision is about considering future generations,” Mr Spencer told the audience.
“The funding authority for Catholic works decided they wouldn’t provide capital grants for schools in flood-affected zones.
“We are committed to rebuilding St Joseph’s in the parish. It has to be a flood-free site.”
“It’s not just about a school,” a mother called out.
“It’s a town, a community, you are walking away from.”
Mr Spencer said it was a sad moment and he could “feel the anger in the room”.
There certainly was anger, mainly about how the diocese said it would consult with parents about the school’s future – and then didn’t.
In November there was a meeting where parents were told they would be part of the decision process.
When Mr Spencer apologised for the way parents found out about the final decision to not rebuild at Woodburn through media reports, he said they would do better and consult with residents.
One parent wasn’t having it.
“You lied to us.
“You said you’d keep us in the loop. (at the November meeting).
“You want us to trust you again when you’ve already told lies – is that the Catholic faith?”
Ten schools in the Lismore diocese were hit by floods. Seven of those will be repaired.
The Catholic Schools Office in the Lismore diocese employs 2500 staff in 45 schools with a total of 18,000 students.
The reason for the decision on the 109-year-old St Joseph’s comes down to insurance, Mr Spencer said.
“We can no longer get insurance for three schools,” he said.
“It’s not just the buildings, the insurance won’t cover furniture, fittings or playgrounds.”
Mr Spencer said there would be consultation on a future site for St Joseph’s. He would not be drawn on where that might be.
“Into the future, the Insurance Council of Australia is saying these events will be more intense, more frequent,” he said.
What about the insurance payout? A man shouted out.
“Knock the roof off and build up,” another person said.
We will come up with flood-free options, Mr Spencer said.
The Catholic Schools Office has not handled the communication of their decision well, making the final decision in a report that parents have not yet seen.
The lack of consultation with those affected the most has been poor.
A woman asked about the heritage church at the Woodburn site. Would it be moved?
A teacher asked about the mural painted by the late Indigenous artist Digby Moran.
Students’ handprints are included in the mural on a brick wall at St Joseph’s.
Another man accused Mr Spencer of “buck-passing”.
A former assistant principal stood up.
“The school started in Swan Bay. Then the St Joseph sisters came and started a school. I came into the school when the numbers were going down but we got the school up to 180 kids,” he said.
“The Italians and dairy farmers helped build the school.”
St Joseph’s School had 91 students before the floods.
A current teacher, Ern, stood up to speak. He didn’t mince his words.
“You’ve buggered it up,” Ern said to Mr Spencer.
“We had two acting directors waltz in and wander around.
“You’ve got bridge building to do with staff.”
Woodburn has a public school with 125 students.
Broadwater Public School which was severely flooded is being rebuilt at its original site.
Another teacher brought up the mental health and wellbeing of the children.
When a parent suggested a community–funded school, Mr Spencer said it would cost a lot.
The 10 schools affected will cost $60–70million to repair, he said.
“That’s the sort of dollars in a non-insurance environment that we have to come up with.”
The meeting went for almost two hours. Many of the people there said they were rebuilding their own homes and having the Catholic church walk away from Woodburn was a blow.
A teacher said: “People in their homes saying their prayers every night, there’s not much hope for them.”
There was no hope at the meeting. The only certainty was that St Joseph’s School would be changing.
At the meeting, a Catholic schools official would not allow media to sit in the meeting.
Three journalists and a camera operator had to stand in an alcove at the back of the church and we were unable to hear the names correctly as people were introduced.
The official also asked for no story on the meeting to be published until after the Thursday meeting at South Lismore.
As the decision to close that school is already common knowledge, IndyNR.com did not feel that publishing this story changed their fate in any way.