Stop Shepparton’s New Super School member drops VCAT case with education department

By Madi Chwasta

A Stop Shepparton's New Super School member will no longer pursue a Freedom of Information dispute with the Victorian Department of Education at VCAT.

It comes after the Department of Education granted Stop Shepparton's New Super School secretary Colleen Jones access to some of the contested documents about Greater Shepparton Secondary College last week.

The Department of Education ordered Mrs Jones to VCAT last month after she requested the release of three sections of a ministerial briefing document to Victorian Education Minister James Merlino dating back to February 2019.

These sections related to the school merger, and were titled "key issues", "budget implications" and "consultation".

However, the VCAT proceedings were stayed due to the pandemic, and the parties were encouraged to mediate in the meantime.

Last week, the Department of Education reconsidered the redactions and gave Mrs Jones access to two of the three sections - "key issues" and "consultation".

They have withheld "budget implications".

“This exception relates to a cost estimate for construction of the Greater Shepparton Secondary College, which is currently commercial-in-confidence,” a Department of Education spokesperson said.

The newly unredacted "consultation" section of the briefing document said the Victorian School Building Authority oversaw the “development and implementation of a community consultation strategy” for the school merger, which included “community meetings and social media options for input”.

“This has involved input from students, parents, staff and community members and organisations,” it said.

The document then said there was "no significant community opposition" to the proposed school merger by February 2019.

Information revealed under "key issues" showed the Department of Education understood predicted demand for secondary schooling would grow five per cent over the next five years in the "designated neighbourhood boundaries" of the merged schools.

It then concluded the total capacity of the merged school would "meet the forecast demand in the area in the next five years (2018-23)".

Mrs Jones said the release of this information was a testament to the perseverance of Stop Shepparton's New Super School.

“We're glad to get those two out there for transparency,” she said.

“We got some answers, but they're not being transparent about everything.”

Mrs Jones said she was legally advised not to pursue the release of "budget implications" at VCAT.

Stop Shepparton's New Super School founder Robyn Boschetti said the group would continue to campaign for education choice in the region.

Mrs Jones applied for the documents relating to the school merger through Freedom of Information in September last year, on behalf of Stop Shepparton's New Super School.

She has been negotiating the release of this information with the Department of Education in the months since.

The Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner said Mrs Jones should have access to this information in late March, noting its release would "serve the public interest", which prompted the VCAT order from the Department of Education.

A Department of Education spokesperson "welcomed" Mrs Jones’ decision.

“We welcome the applicant’s decision to end proceedings before VCAT, having resolved the matter without the need for a hearing,” the spokesperson said.

“The Department proactively released documents requested by the applicant under FOI, with the exception of two paragraphs (under "budget implications").”