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Acacia College – Dust to Dust

October 18, 2012

‘Fresh, unique and surprising’. The motto of Acacia College ( in Mernda has unfortunately demonstrated that surprises are not always good. On 16 March 2009, my daughter Madison (aged 11 at the time) stood proudly out the front of the vacant site that would become Acacia College – the school she was looking forward to joining as a foundation student when it opened in 2010. Now some three-years later, something ‘fresh’ and ‘unique’ has come to a ‘surprising’, saddening and in many ways disgraceful end.

Madison at the Acacia Site - March 2009

The Vision
As recent arrivals in Doreen (Melbourne’s North), we had made the decision to build a home because of the schooling options. The expensive and established Ivanhoe Grammar (out of our financial reach) was being joined by the Uniting Church’s Acacia College (to open in 2010) and the future addition of both Catholic and Government high-schools (projects that have since been delayed or abandoned). The promise in 2009 was a ‘state-of-the-art’ school with community cafeteria, three major buildings and a host of facilities upon the empty land. Many parents made a similar decision to us, choosing to locate in the area on the promise of Government, developers and not least the Uniting Church to facilitate education in the fast-growing area.

Foundations layed at Acacia College Mernda

Foundation and Promise
In June 2009, concrete foundations were being poured and the signage promised the 2010 opening from Prep to Year 7, expanding to Year 12 by 2015. Now some 40-months later, the Uniting Church is closing a school that has grown to over 500 students, that has over 700 enrollments for 2013. How can anyone building a school not plan for at least 5 to 10 years? How can a rate of growth of more than 200 students per year become a failed school? How can parents asking to pay more to keep the school operating, still result in its closure? How can such a rapid area of family growth remain devoid of any high-school, Government or Private, other than those that already operated in the decades before the region became a residential suburb? Everyone involved has a right to better answers! My daughter, promised a school she could be proud to be an alumni of, has every right to be distraught at the unexplained closure, the manner in which the Uniting Church has mismanaged the development and now the closure of the school. Anger that is warranted at a commitment unfulfilled.

Acacia College Administration Building - Feb 2010

Something does NOT add up
Parents given a few hours notice by email and SMS to attend an urgent meeting at 7.30pm on 17 October 2012, were told that the school must close effective 14 December 2012 due to mounting debts totaling more than $10 million. What new school could expect to be in the black after three short years? If the interest bill is around $1 million, and parents of some 700 students enrolled for 2013 offered some $1,500 per annum each, in excess of the circa $6,000 they are currently paying, would this not resolve a financial crisis despite the short-sightedness of the Uniting Church operators. There is something else at play here, to drop a long-term plan in a high-growth market with such cavalier disregard for the impeccable staff, wonderful students, loyal parents and stretched community devoid of other education options. If I were more cynical of mind, I would have three further questions …

1) Is Uniting Church Moderator Isabel Thomas Dobson, of recent MLC fame, equipped to manage education?
2) Is the current media focus on the MLC being used as a ‘blood-letting’ while the brand is already weak?
3) How does closing the school make financial sense when the cost of alternate options will ultimately be greater?

The lack of transparency that has followed delays, litigation, disputes with the developer(s) and a host of other issues has shown that the Uniting Church has no regard for this community and instills no confidence that their reasoning relates to real underlying motivations as they wash their hands of commitment to education in the area.

Day 1 at Acacia - Feb 2010

Surprising End
You don’t have to look far to see promised commitment to families and communities plastered all over Uniting Church websites and marketing communications. These testimonies ring hollow after the actions that displaced over 500 students, some 200 new students planning to start next year, and the whole over-stretched community. In February 2010, when Madison first started at Acacia College as a foundation Year 7 student, she expected to graduate there in 2015, joined by her twin sisters Amy and Sarah who would start High School in the same year. The principal and teachers, given no advanced warning of the withdrawn support, had given up other jobs and many had moved into the area to be part of a new school and a new culture – they are blameless, wonderful and among the most devastated by the mercenary decision.

Some students moved to this area after the Black Saturday bushfires (12-months before the school opened) to build a new life – now again disrupted. Other parents have special needs children and all community networks, built within the formation of a new school will be dissolved. The timing, when most schools have locked numbers and places for 2013, is scandalous. The manner in which the decision has been (mis)communicated is demonstration of the ongoing ineptitude of this branch of the Uniting Church in managing Victorian education commitments. The reasons and motivations are still hidden from hard working parents and a community forgotten by the incumbent Victorian Government.

Student Performance at Acacia College

Many will say ‘so what’, or all education should be public, or financial viability is good reason. I would ask, when is it acceptable for an organization to assume such a fundamental social responsibility and then drop the ball in such a short period of time? I certainly hope that the financial advice, taken as diagnosis of the school’s ‘alleged’ lack of viability, did not come from the same financial managers responsible for salary management at MLC.

Statement of Interest/Bias: I am a disgruntled parent of an upset student in an angry community that wants answers. Acacia was a great school … fresh, unique and this is not the type of ‘surprise’ any of us expected.

R.I.P. Acacia College (1 Feb 2010 – 14 Dec 2012)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Fiona permalink
    October 18, 2012 6:48 AM

    Well written. We all have questions and grieve the loss for our kids and the disruption for their future.

  2. Simon Rawson permalink
    October 18, 2012 7:14 AM

    Very sorry to see the news, David. The presence of the school was one of the reasons you chose to build your new home in Doreen.

  3. Renee Short permalink
    October 18, 2012 11:05 AM

    Great articulation of the issues. My heart is breaking for my daughter, her wonderful teachers and the school community that we have lost.

  4. October 18, 2012 11:19 AM

    David, in the face of this disaster, you have eloquently written a pragmatic, yet heartfelt view that needs to be voiced. Good luck to yourselves and all that have been affected by this turn of events.

  5. Phillip Burtt permalink
    October 22, 2012 7:03 AM

    Its taken a few days for families to get over the shock of the announcement. An action group has now been formed. We would welcome you joining us. At the very least the UCA needs to make full disclosure of the financial modeling this decision is based on …

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