By David Jagger
SYDNEY — Australia's first Aboriginal high school, Pemulwuy College, is back on a sure footing with a more manageable size and a new governing council for next year.
It is calling for enrolments for years seven, eight and nine and more community involvement to overcome early difficulties.
Troubles started in September, when the federal and state governments realised they had funded the school on the basis of unmet enrolment predictions. About 130 students were expected to attend, but only 60 enrolled, and this has now dropped to 32. The federal government is considering withholding part of future funds and/or legal action to retrieve its money, the bulk of the school's debts.
New college council chairperson Wilma Moran says the debt is the fault of previous management and so should be paid by them or wiped.
"Given the mistakes made in the past, that we've got another management committee and we're looking at putting more skilled staff on, I think the government should be looking at wiping past debts to enable us to get the school back running again", she said.
Moran believes funding bodies themselves are partly to blame for Pemulwuy's teething problems. She said: "You would have thought that they would have had people in those establishments — liaison officers, field officers — coming out to offer a level of assistance."
Federal Aboriginal affairs minister Robert Tickner told Pemulwuy in September that it must drop years nine, 10, 11 and 12 and run only years seven and eight before it is funded next year. The new council agreed, though it is still negotiating on year nine.
Tickner has said funding will be provided for the school if it has 40 students. Legally the school can run on a minimum of 30 enrolments.
"We're quite optimistic they [the governments] will come to the party on that [year nine]. And again it's going to depend on enrolments and Koori involvement", said Moran.
She said Pemulwuy will grow gradually to again include the senior years. This is more realistic for a new, independent school. "I think that's where most of the problem lies. They just tried to take on too much too soon", she said.
Meanwhile, the council will assist the older kids now enrolled to find suitable other schools. Those wanting to come to Pemulwuy from the country next year are entitled to Abstudy living away from home allowance.
Both the federal and state governments have indicated they may fund teachers' assistants and a school adviser next year. The new council, which has had extensive Aboriginal education experience and advice from the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group, is reviewing teacher and administrative duties and liaising with a consultant on curriculum A full operational plan is expected soon.
The cutback to years seven and eight only will reduce teacher numbers from five to three, but Moran said staff are also happy with next year's plans.
She said it is now up to the community to get behind Pemulwuy. "There are still four [council] placings open. We're hoping that more people from the community will take up those to make it more representative", she said.
Presently all teachers are white. The new councillors want all students to get a good general education with a guaranteed Aboriginal studies component. Naturally, Aboriginal teachers are part of their plans. "Hopefully we'll attract them", said Moran. "But unfortunately I think they're just like everybody else — sitting back waiting to see how it goes."
Pemulwuy is also planning to approach patrons to supplement its quarterly federal and state funding.