Charter School Operators: The Christchurch Empty Schools Trust

My Thinks have been working hard this week interviewing the preferred bidders for the government’s new charter school chain. For our final profile our reporter heads down to Christchurch to interview a leading light in education down there. 

It’s a cold Friday afternoon in central Christchurch almost three years after a series of earthquakes changed this city forever. Beside me stands Anthony “Tony” Gerard. He’s head of the Christchurch Empty Schools Trust who are licensed to operate charter schools in the city. In front of us stands another recent addition to his collection. He holds the deed for the school in his hand. A smile spreads slowly over his face.

Earlier on this year the government announced they would be closing many, many schools in the earthquake ravaged city. Rather than being up in arms, former real estate agent Gerard saw an opportunity, particularly after a private seminar at a regional political party sub-conference hosted by several Internet writers.

“We realised when the government announced this policy there would be a sudden glut of schools on the market,” he says. I hadn’t actually asked a question, but it was good to receive the unsolicited information.

“We didn’t want the value of these sites to begin falling,” he continued, “so a group of un-named business associates set up a trust with the goal of purchasing cheap educational facilities from the Ministry of Education and turn them into charter schools.”

It is a welcome relief to have someone who appears to be a National Party supporter so open with their behind-the-scenes activities. I ask if they set up the trust with the mind to develop the organisation into a charity.

“Oh no,” he replies, “we set up the trust so we wouldn’t have to pay taxes. That’s what everyone does, isn’t it?”

Before I can answer further more information is forthcoming.

“We are really looking toward the future,” says Gerard, “when we can turn these empty schools into schools.”

Gerard goes on to explain the trust’s plan to set up several charter schools across the city. The schools will be modelled on American charter schools which often open up in recently closed schools. He says the most important thing about their plan is their very close links to the nation’s ruling party.

“This plan wouldn’t work if we didn’t have these close ties,” he explains. “If we know which school is going to close next, months before any members of the public, including the school, find out, then we can put in place various plans, shell companies and blind trusts to ensure that we make a healthy profit on our investment.”

As we walk around the empty grounds of school, once home to hundreds of chattering voices, you can’t help but think this is a man with a unique vision for education.

“The idea is to get everything set up so that schools that close on the Friday can reopen on the Monday morning at 9am with the same pupils attending classes in exactly the same buildings with brand-new teaching staff from a vast range of professions – many of which aren’t teaching. The only thing that will change is the management – managers will run everything. We’re a business. There’s no need for principals.”

As we walk out the school gate and padlock the chain, it’s hard to believe that on Monday morning this school will be buzzing with the sounds of the very same children who left just half an hour ago. I turn to the car park to find only a couple of teachers remain carefully reading the conditions of their trespass notices.

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