What really happened at Rangiora High School?

by Sally Blundell / 21 March, 2016
Photo/Louis Trerise

Rangiora High School principal Peggy Burrows has been sacked. How did it all go so wrong at a school that had bounced back from tough times?

There was no absence note. The non-appearance of principal Peggy Burrows at Rangiora High School’s graduation ceremony at the end of 2015 was mentioned but never explained.

“It was sad,” says Nic Steyn, the year’s dux, now studying financial engineering at the University of Canterbury. “Everyone knew she wasn’t there but no one really acknowledged it or talked about it. Yet she’d been there with us for the past five years, for the biggest part of our lives.”

The parent of another 2015 graduate says the students were upset that Burrows wasn’t around to attend end-of-year celebrations.

“They went through their whole schooling with her at their side as principal,” she explains, “and that should be a cool end to their year. But their perspective is the same as parents’ – we don’t know what the hell is going on.”

What parents at this large rural Canterbury school do know is that at the beginning of 2015, the Board of Trustees (BoT) was dissolved and a commissioner put in place. They know that in June, the principal, Peggy Burrows, was suspended or, according to the school newsletter, went “on leave” and has barely been heard from since.

And now they also know that on March 7, she was sacked. Commissioner Bev Moore wrote in a media release that “matters relating to integrity/security of documentation came to light, including a significant breach of privacy”.

The rest has been a storm of rumours, allegations and accusations, whipping up a much wider debate about the way statutory interventions in the country’s state schools are managed.

Rangiora High is a very wealthy institution. A decile 9 secondary school, it has a 132-year agri­cultural legacy, 1800 students, 130 teaching staff and about $18 million in assets. By 2003, when Burrows became principal, it had amassed more than 40ha of farmland, a resource for pupils studying animal husbandry, stock breeding, pasture experimentation, the environment and business. It is this land asset that seems to have split the BoT, attracted the attention of the Ministry of Education and sharpened the determination of the principal.

Married to a fifth-generation Cantabrian, Burrows has a track record that suggests both professional and personal ambition. Before coming to Rangiora, she was deputy principal at Marlborough Girls’ College. She is a Justice of the Peace (the youngest woman in New Zealand to be appointed to that position) and was a finalist for the 2013 Women of Influence awards. She has sat on the Deportation Review Tribunal, the National Animal Advisory Committee and the North Canterbury Alpine Trust and still sits on the Canterbury Aoraki Conservation Board. As part of her current doctoral research, she has delivered papers on bicultural leadership and raising Maori achievement across the world.

When she took over at Rangiora High, the school had gone through tough times. The Education Review Office (ERO) report from 2003 describes a general lack of student achievement, limited student engagement, high suspension and stand-down rates and incidents of student bullying.

The protagonists: former Rangiora High principal Peggy Burrows.

Remarkable growth

The growth over the following years was remarkable: by 2012, the roll had grown from 1275 to 1803 and the 2009 ERO report describes a school with strong leadership and effective governance. Student achievement at upper levels was still below that of comparable schools, but the number of students leaving with little or no formal attainment had dropped. The 2012 ERO review reported further progress: a more positive school culture and improved levels of achievement. Although it recommends regular staff-­satisfaction surveys, it says school leaders and staff with key responsibilities “work well together to find sustainable ways to improve the quality of teaching and learning”.

The following year, Rangiora was one of three schools to win the national Great Spaces for Teachers award, based on results from the New Zealand Council for Education Research Teacher Workplace Survey. By then, however, the relationship between the BoT and the principal had begun to unravel.

In 2007, after the council rezoned part of the farmland residential, the BoT sold half the farm – 18.27ha – for $7.4 million. The capital was put aside, while the interest was put into a trust to be used for “the support, enhancement and advancement” of past, present and future students and staff – from 2008-14, the school spent $1.7 million of this interest on the school and students.

The board began looking for a replacement farm. Legal opinion of the time was that the Education Lands Act 1949 imposed a so-called “caveat” that required any purchase to be based on a like-for-like scenario: farmland should be replaced by farmland. Between 2008 and 2011, the school explored a number of potential purchases. It missed out on two and the principal rejected several others, eventually arguing the board had to confirm its purchasing criteria with the ministry.

Until this time, says former BoT chair Mark Scown, “things were going along very well. We had enormously talented people sitting around that table and as a board we took our stewardship very seriously.” But as time went on and subsequent properties were rejected, “we felt the principal became a little bit reticent around doing anything.”

Earthquake impact

After the earthquakes, competition for land grew. The roll swelled with refugees from the city. Prefabs moved to the school in 2006 to cope with roll growth were full to bursting and the ministry had imposed a temporary freeze on new building expenditure. Conflict erupted over the school’s plan to move back into premises used by the Rangiora High School nursery school. Former students were impatient to see a new land purchase.

Then, in April 2014, previous board chair Matt James told an alumni function the money did not have to be re-invested in farmland. As Ex-Pupils’ Association member responsible for school farm ­matters, Colin Walls says this went down like a lead balloon.

“There were 100 people there and we were all blown over. The school had a magnificent reputation over the farm and there was an understanding in the whole community of North Canterbury that the land was donated and that should it be sold it should be replaced.”

James’ view, however, was endorsed three months later when, in response to a query from school lawyers Wynn Williams, the ministry said the original land was held “for the purpose of generating income”. As such, any replacement land did not need to be farmland and did not need to be for an educational purpose.

“For example, it could be commercial/industrial land that generates rental income, as long as the income generated continues to be used for the benefit of Rangiora High School’s schooling operations.”

Constant tension

The school’s purchasing plans were in meltdown. Tensions around the board table were growing. Advice was sought from the NZ School Trustees Association and the ministry. In October 2014, Burrows said in a letter to ministry officials: “I have reflected on the constant tension I have experienced over the past three years with my board.” She added that she and the board were effective at a governance level “in spite of ourselves”.

In response to the board’s request, the ministry appointed two specialist advisers: Michael Rondel would advise on financial affairs and Bev Moore on human resources and employment matters. The resulting human resources report, obtained under the Official Information Act, paints a grim picture of conflict and tension. The advisers write that they “do not believe the current board has the capacity or expertise to address this level of risk”.

On February 16 last year, before the board had even seen the reports, let alone had a chance to respond, Education Minister Hekia Parata signed an agreement to dissolve the board – it was later given a week to read a redacted copy of the reports before this came into effect. The ministry then appointed Moore as commissioner.

To some, this appeared a conflict of interest – after all, Moore wrote the report that apparently warranted the appointment of a commissioner. In a letter to the Ministry of Education, the board wrote, via its lawyer, that appointing Moore “raises questions of the independence of the specialist adviser in the first place [and …] whether further investigations will be independently undertaken or whether the outcome will be pre-determined.” According to a ministry spokesperson, this kind of “escalation of intervention” is quite common: “We have other examples where we have an LSM [limited statutory manager] that becomes the commissioner – they are familiar with the issues.” The ministry also assured the school that Moore was “committed to working effectively with the principal and her senior leadership team”.

In an email response, the ministry’s head of sector enablement and support, Katrina Casey, said that after reading the advisers’ reports, “we reached the view that the issues at the school posed a significant risk to the operation of the school”.

In a letter to the minister, the school’s legal adviser, Wynn Williams, disputes  that. “There is no risk to the operation of the school or to the welfare or educational performance of its students as is required.” Rather, the school was “operating successfully” with a new and functioning BoT following the November 2014 elections.

The appointment of a commissioner, Wynn Williams says, is also at odds with the principle of “minimum intervention” laid out in the 1989 Education Act.

It seems unusual – unusual that statutory advisers were in place for only four months before the ministry moved to the higher level of intervention; that the human resources report relied to a large extent on former board members, even though a new board had just been elected; and that the intermediary step of appointing an LSM was not taken before a commissioner was installed.

It is also unusual that a commissioner was appointed when neither the board nor the principal asked for this level of intervention – publicly at least; the resignation of three board members before the election may have been an attempt to prompt state intervention and, in a later letter to the ministry, the board agreed to support the appointment of a commissioner. And it is particularly unusual that this top-level statutory intervention was imposed on a school that was not failing: student achievement was high, ERO reports were glowing, staff vacancies were few.

“I can understand [ministry intervention] when students are not achieving or there are concerns about finances,” says Secondary Principals’ Association president Sandy Pasley. “But it worries members when a successful school and somebody seen as successful has this happen.”

Peggy Burrows: gagged. Photo/Louis Trerise

Gagged from speaking

It is also unusual that while the rumours and allegations continued to swirl through the rural town, the person at the centre of the storm could not speak in her defence. The day after the board’s dissolution, Burrows travelled to Philadelphia to deliver a paper based on her doctoral research. While there, she received a message from newly appointed commissioner Moore telling her not to speak to the media about any of the circumstances that led to the appointment. She was also advised to seek prior approval before talking to the media about anything and that any breach “would be viewed very seriously and may lead to my commencing disciplinary action against you”.

It is common practice for details of an employment dispute to be protected from public scrutiny, but in this case it left an information vacuum. Despite assurances by former BoT chair Dave Turnbull that the intervention related to “policy and governance matters”, the rumour mill went into overdrive: the principal had misappropriated money (she hadn’t); she had gone to the US on school money without school approval (Scown says the trip had board approval); there was rampant overspending (the interest monies did make for a ready fund for many school expenses, but though Rondel’s report called for improved budgeting processes, the school was in a “strong financial position”); the Philadelphia trip was of no benefit to the school (many would argue Maori academic achievement is relevant to all schools, but Moore says the school’s updated travel policy “requires any future overseas trip proposals to show evidence for how the travel will lead to greater educational outcomes for our students”).

As commissioner, Moore was effectively the principal’s employer, yet there seems to have been no attempt to bring some order to this maelstrom of misinformation, which is what might be expected in a good-faith relationship. Moore declined to be interviewed but wrote in an email: “It is standard practise [sic] that schools have a designated media spokesperson (this is usually the board chair) and I have taken on this role for Rangiora High School since my appointment, albeit with constraints around confidential matters.”

In April, following his report on financial mismanagement at Rangiora High School, TVNZ reporter Michael Parkin was sent a bundle of school documents and an anonymous covering letter. To identify the leak, Moore spent an estimated $28,000 on a private investigation. In his conclusion, private investigator Michael Bass said the motive and opportunity would “appear to support” the premise that the principal played a “part in the release of information contained within the TVNZ documents and/or some part in the release of the documents themselves”, and on June 20, reportedly on the back of this finding, Burrows was suspended.

Following her suspension, Burrows wrote to Parata, Prime Minister John Key and other ministers, asking to be reinstated and accusing the commissioner of conducting a “fishing expedition” for reasons to justify “her actions and her treatment of me”.

She accessed her sick leave. Friends outside the school described loss of weight, extreme anxiety, exhaustion. And still she could not speak out.

Once again, attention turned quickly to the use of the money from the farm sale. The ministry report requesting the dissolution of the board had already warned of the risk “that the board will make a purchase based on the principal’s opinion that a farm is required rather than basing its decision on links to a strategic plan and the actual priorities of the school”. Then, in November, in an open letter to the school community, Moore quoted advice from her legal team and the ministry that no caveat requiring the funds to be used for the purchase of a farm had been found – even though the so-called caveat was inherent in the legislation, not an add-on to the land title. As such, she wrote, “the school has some discretion over what it can spend its resources on to best meet the needs of its students. If analysis shows that additional land would have educational value for its students, then this would be considered. Conversely, however, if it was felt that it was in the best interests of the students to have upgraded facilities or additional resources in other areas of the school, then this would need to be considered too.”

Two months later, media attention was drawn to the sorry state of some the school’s buildings. There were suggestions of poor asset management by the school, even though the ministry usually funds building projects. In fact, the school had spent $8 million on property development since 2006, and in 2014, after the post-earthquake freeze on new buildings had thawed, the Government had announced a $14.9 million building upgrade. Associate Education Minister Nikki Kaye said in a press release at the time that the school “has experienced a significant roll increase following the Christchurch earthquakes. It has a large number of relocatable classrooms in very poor condition, and property issues have compounded over time to the point where a substantial redevelopment is required.” Work was expected to begin in early 2015 and be completed by October this year, but the dissolution of the board and the suspension of the principal will have delayed this timetable.

Public scrutiny of the school’s building stock, however, once again raised the issue of the sizeable amount of capital from the sale of the farmland. Moore told the Press that if it was decided with the community to use the farm funds for buildings, it would “go a long way” to maintaining, upgrading and improving school facilities.

According to Scown, the board knew some prefabs were “tatty”, but they did not think their own funds in reserve could be used on bricks and mortar on the site. “That was the legal opinion of the day. In nine years I was on the board, the roll had grown from 1250 to nearly 1900 students – I certainly didn’t see a speedy response from ministry property in terms of addressing that.”

Parent Paul Finch, organiser of a petition to “get Peggy back in the school now”. Photo/Louis Trerise

Polarising figure

Burrows is a polarising figure. Former staff members describe her as a micro-manager, a player, an empire builder. One cites the large staff turnover following her arrival as principal, another the rash of personal grievances – there were 11 notifications in 2014 although the board has never had to defend a personal grievance in the Employment Court – and the high turnover of chairpersons, although, as explained to the ministry in 2015, these were for “perfectly legitimate reasons [and …] should not be seen as a failing.”

Others point to the growing success of the school as the result of a strong principal not afraid to fight for what she thinks is right to protect assets and build on the academic achievement and professional development of pupils and staff. As she wrote in the school newsletter in November 2014, the school’s considerable assets “are owned by the students and parents of this school and held in trust for you all. The very real challenge for us as a school is to use this wealth to build an educational legacy that will support all students and their families for yet another 130 years. We will do that together … We are in fine heart and face a very bright future together.”

A petition asking the minister to “recognise Peggy’s contribution, remove the commissioner immediately and get Peggy back in the school now” has attracted more than 1000 signatures.

The petition organiser, parent Paul Finch, can’t understand why the intervention was needed. “ERO says the school is going great, the people in town say she did a fantastic job getting the school back on its feet, she did a great job over the earthquake, sports are all good, finances good, a new board had been democratically elected.

“Then I read about the property issues. My greatest concern is the outgoing board spat the dummy, and whether they did it intentionally or not, their resignation looks as if there was a sudden increase in risk, so the ministry had the perfect opportunity to say, ‘The board is falling apart, we can come in.’”

Top-level state intervention, a suspension and now the abrupt end to a 37-year education career seem an extraordinary reaction to what could be described as a relationship breakdown between a principal and her since-replaced board (and perhaps staff), the argument over the use of accumulated funds and an alleged leak that did nothing to undermine the school’s reputation anyway.

New Zealand First education spokeswoman Tracey Martin has called for an urgent investigation into the ministry’s “mismanagement of the appointment of Rangiora High School’s Commissioner”. The ministry, she says in a press release, “bungled and overreacted to tensions between the school’s board and senior management. It now appears the school’s assets are at risk from a money-grabbing minister and ministry.”

The cost of intervention

Martin’s press release insists that “questions need to be asked”. And questions are being asked about statutory intervention generally. Although there is a need for state support when a school is failing, concern has been raised over the cost to schools of such intervention. The ministry will fund required intervention for some schools, but those deemed able to foot the bill are expected to trim expenses elsewhere to cover costs.

It’s not cheap. In the year to April 2013, Moerewa School in Northland paid commissioner Michael Eru more than $150,000 in fees and expenses. In 2013, Wairau Valley School was invoiced $20,000 for its commissioner, the same Bev Moore. At Rangiora High, between February and June 2015 alone, the cost of intervention topped $40,000.

There is also concern about the number and length of some interventions. As of October 2015, 77 of the country’s 2445 schools were under some form of intervention: 48 had an LSM, 19 a commissioner. The average term for a commissioner, says a Ministry of Education spokesperson, is about two years, but critics say that because the commissioners themselves are involved in the decision as to how long statutory intervention is required, they have no incentive to make themselves redundant.

The role of the commissioner, says ­Wanganui Intermediate School principal Charles Oliver, “is essentially to go into the school, solve the problems that it has, then begin immediately the process of getting another board elected and handing responsibility back to a new board”.

Oliver is a member of the Sector Working Party Group for Statutory Interventions, set up by the ministry in 2013 to review the way statutory interventions are managed.

The group’s recommendations include earlier involvement by the schooling sector in schools in difficulty so steps can be taken without the “heavy artillery” of statutory intervention; clear criteria for the selection of commissioners and LSMs for appointment to a national pool; a more transparent process of appointing people for intervention; more consistency in the way commissioners conduct interventions; and clearer criteria for funding intervention.

“The biggest one for us is to support schools that are in difficulty without having to go to statutory intervention,” says Oliver. “If we had better training, better support and earlier intervention, schools wouldn’t need to go down this pathway.”

For Peggy Burrows, that pathway has been cut abruptly short. With lawyer Richard ­Harrison (who represented Christchurch Girls’ High School principal Prue Taylor when she was sacked in 2012), Burrows will challenge her dismissal.

In a media release, Moore says the decision was “not made lightly, and the New Zealand School Trustees Association and legal advice was sought throughout to ensure that a rigorous and fair process was followed”.

Moore will not comment any further on the grounds that it is a confidential matter and as the employer she cannot be drawn into any line of questioning “that could compromise this confidential and private employment relationship”.

For her part, Burrows says the sacking is “a little bit like a death. You live with someone who is sick for a year then, on the day they die, you understand it was going to happen, but it doesn’t make it any easier. I started school at the age of five, and apart from a gap year when I met my husband, I have been in education my whole life. So it is a huge wrench – it is like losing part of yourself.”

Stepping in: How statutory intervention works

Schools can be placed under statutory management if the Ministry of Education believes there is a risk to the operation of the school, or to the welfare or educational performance of pupils. This may be as a result of an Education Review Office report or a board throwing up its hands and asking for assistance. Former commissioner Denis Cocks says the need for intervention usually relates to “too many things lacking: the breakdown of relationships, finance all over the place or property decisions or ­curriculum poorly managed”.

There are six types of statutory intervention. At the lowest levels, a specialist adviser is enlisted to advise the Board of Trustees on a particular issue or a board is asked to provide specified inform. At the next level, a limited statutory manager is appointed to sit alongside the board. At the highest level, the board is replaced by a commissioner with all the powers and duties of a board.

A limited statutory manager (LSM) or commissioner usually remains in place until the minister decides he or she is no longer required. This ­decision is based largely on reports given to the local ministry officer – by the LSM or commissioner.

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