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Victoria’s school building authority failed to tell the residents of a densely populated Brunswick neighbourhood about its plan to build a three-storey school in the area, leaving it to the construction crew to break the news on the day works started.
Residents in Brunswick say they were were let down by the planning process for a new school building project. Credit: Jason South
Residents who live across the road from the project site say they were blindsided by the communication breakdown, and given no opportunity to view, or have their say on, the project plans.
The school building authority blamed human error for its failure to inform affected residents of the project before works started and apologised, but said it was too late to make any changes based on community feedback.
It is believed that the Victorian Ombudsman has commenced an investigation of the matter, although a spokesperson said “the Ombudsman does not confirm or deny if an investigation is being conducted”.
Sydney Road Community School, a government-run alternative school housed in a former Methodist church, will move from its current home on Brunswick’s main strip to a new location in time for the 2024 school year. The new site will have its entry on Glenlyon Road with a three-storey building to be constructed in vacant land that faces onto Merri Street.
The Victorian School Building Authority informed traders and residents in the immediate vicinity of the current school site of the relocation project late last year, but failed to tell those based near the new school site until months later.
Aviva Same, who lives in an apartment facing the new school site, attended a hastily arranged meeting with the authority in April, days after works started, but said the project designs were presented to residents as a fait accompli.
“We thought we might have some say in design but were basically told it’s all set, they’ve passed the design stages and there is nothing that we can say that would adjust it,” Same said.
Residents were also made to feel guilty for complaining about the process, she said.
“During the meeting they laid it on fairly thick, they basically said by us complaining we are going to hold up the school.”
Sandra Del Monaco lives in the same apartment building.
“We know the school plays a valuable role in our community, and we’re not opposed to the site being developed,” she said.
But Del Monaco said it was “inconceivable” that a project that would have significant impact on a residential area could reach construction stage without neighbours being notified or given a chance to access project plans.
“This isn’t just a handful of residents who weren’t notified. This is an entire precinct, including residents who live directly opposite and adjacent to the site,” she said.
An architect for the project said in the online consultation produced in December that the school’s modular three-storey building would house specialist classes, “including the junk band where students make their own instruments and then play in a slightly informal orchestra”.
“Lots of music rooms, recording studios, science rooms ... basically spaces you have some of the more noisy parts of the school,” architect Mat Foley said.
Resident Bernadette Clareborough said the community was still seeking a clear response on whether these rooms would face their apartments.
Government school building projects have been exempted from the requirement to obtain local planning permits since 1987. Similar rights were extended to some non-government schools in 2019, to avoid them being delayed by planning objections.
But a “Good Neighbour Guide” developed for schools by the Victorian School Building Authority warns that projects can still go off the rails if affected community members are not informed in advance.
“If consultation is left until the final stage of the project, you run the risk of not addressing the community’s needs, being sidetracked by off-topic feedback or negative publicity,” the guide states.
The Education Department acknowledged in a statement that a mailout error led to a number of residents not being informed of the project in December.
The Sydney Road Community School, which was not responsible for consultation on the project, was contacted for comment.
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