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Private cash for public schools: Labor's budget sell-off to fund education overhaul

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The Weatherill Government’s $1.6 billion windfall from the controversial privatisation of the Lands Titles Office will fund a $690 million public education cash-splash, which will see 91 schools around the state gifted significant new funding to spend on areas of need.

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Education Minister Susan Close declared today: “I’m almost lost for words about how much of a difference this will make to our school system.”

“To be able to lift the quality of infrastructure of 91 schools in one single program is remarkable, and will make an extraordinary difference to the way people look at public education,” she told reporters.

Premier Jay Weatherill said the new program – Building Better Schools, billed as the “largest ever State Government investment in school infrastructure” – was made possible by the “reserves achieved through the excellent result of the sale of the LTO”.

That sale netted $1.605 billion in August when it was offloaded to the Land Services SA consortium comprised of Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets and Canada’s Public Sector Pension Investment Board, who will now oversee SA’s transactional land services for the next 40 years.

The sale has inflamed tensions with the state’s Public Service Association, which has threatened legal action and queried the “mysterious” nature of the corporation set up to run the LTO under the auspices of Land Services SA – Autumn Operating Company Pty Ltd.

It also prompted an ideological schism within Labor ranks, with a May state council meeting strongly supporting a motion to “go on the record to oppose privatisation of the Lands Titles Office”.

However, the final sale netted a windfall well over the anticipated $300-400 million, which the Australian Institute of Conveyancers previously lamented would prove “a short-term gain for the government, with long term – and yet unknown – ramifications for the SA public”.

“This is capital,” Weatherill said of today’s investment, which is to be spent by the end of 2022.

“And we have a capital sum that we achieved through the LTO sale – and it’s being ploughed back into public education.”

Weatherill and Close made today’s announcement at Seaton High School, which will be handed $20 million to “replace transportable buildings, redevelop and refurbish learning spaces and expand capacity to help meet local population growth”.

It follows weeks of education announcements by both major parties, suggesting the portfolio will become a key battleground at the March state election.

Weatherill said 30 per cent of the affected schools were in country or ‘peri-urban’ areas which are “more likely to be non-marginal or contested seats”.

“This hasn’t been constructed on the basis of politics – the department stands behind this assessment of need,” he said.

However, $31 million of the funds announced – including those for Seaton – will be spent in minister Stephen Mullighan’s north-western suburbs seat of Lee, which party insiders consider vulnerable.

Mullighan was quoted on the Government’s media release, saying “the $31 million investment for schools in Lee will be a huge boost to the learning environment at Seaton High School and the Grange and West Lakes Shore primary schools”.

“As local member, I’ll continue to keep lobbying on behalf of all the schools in our western suburbs community so that we can deliver the best facilities for students of all ages,” he said.

Liberal leader Steven Marshall welcomed the infrastructure upgrades but urged broader reform, saying shifting year 7 into high school should be concurrently introduced “to give students the benefit of specialist teaching at an earlier age and catch up with the rest of country”.

“We need to give principals the power to choose the best teachers available to improve our poor NAPLAN results… the State Liberals’ education policy will future-proof our schools to ensure the best possible education for our kids,” he said.

Weatherill said the recipients of the new program had been determined by an Education Department “Asset Master Planning Analysis Tool”, which analysed current and historical enrolment figures – focussing on schools with more than 300 enrolled students – population growth forecasts, and school capacity, maintenance and condition.

Schools can present their own spending plans to the department for assessment.

“We’ve tried to choose those schools that have the greatest need, and the money will be spent in areas of need,” Weatherill said.

Close said there was also a focus on encouraging parents not to “chase” eastern suburbs public schools that couldn’t keep up with demand.

“A lot of them are on a very small footprint and it’s simply not possible to keep expanding them,” she said.

“We want to make other schools more attractive so parents don’t feel they need to be chasing eastern suburbs schools to get a good education for their kids.”

Nonetheless, the single biggest funding handout, of $30 million, will go to the in-demand Norwood Morialta High School in the eastern suburbs.

Master Builders SA today said expressed “strong support” for the Government’s measures, with CEO Ian Markos enthusing the program would be a “shot in the arm” for SA’s building and construction industry.

“With 91 schools across the state being upgraded, this is a massive and geographically-widespread pipeline of work that will ensure hundreds of jobs,” he said.

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