OPINION

Opinion: Why Wytaliba school had to be rebuilt

A a cost of $2 million, the rebuild cost nearly $200,000 per student. But it was worth it.
A a cost of $2 million, the rebuild cost nearly $200,000 per student. But it was worth it.

Should we really have rebuilt the school in Wytaliba?

Rebuilding the school, you see, cost the state taxpayer two million bucks. And the school normally has less than 20 students (at the moment, just 11).

That's close enough to $200,000 per student to rebuild the buildings.

Couldn't that money have gone to better use elsewhere?

I've heard this argument everywhere, from community representatives to Facebook commentators, rich and poor, powerful and small.

The answer is no. In fact it's really, really clearly no, but just let me explain.

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Wytaliba and Torrington were both smashed last November by mega-bushfires. Two lives were lost in the former plus 50-odd homes; no lives were lost in Torrington thanks to extreme good luck and the incredible efforts of volunteer fire crews from around Australia.

Both villages are now, three months on, being cleaned up, with the enormous help of the army.

Last month the government finished the rebuilding of Wytaliba's (and Bobin's) state school. Took them three months, quickest school build in history. Kids didn't miss a single 2020 day of school.

Now most people might say this is a good thing. But at what cost?

State government absolutely could have saved $2 million by abandoning its commitment to education in Wytaliba, money that could have been spent teaching far more kids in bigger schools elsewhere.

From the perspective of a government bean-counter, centralising services is always more efficient. It absolutely is cheaper and easier to run services in larger institutions with a mass user base.

This is called the efficiency of scale; two factories are slower than one factory twice as big.

But government could also save even more money canceling the $20 million upgrade of Glen Innes hospital - and even more sacking all the staff and closing it.

That money could be spent on a new super-dooper regional hospital in Armidale. More people would get better quality services, they'd spend less on overheads, more on medicine and presumably everyone would be totally happy driving two hours to get a checkup.

Now I obviously don't think that's a particularly fair or good idea. I think it's worth investing in rural areas, committing to providing services across Australia. I think you do too.

So how come that doesn't apply to Wytaliba? Is it fair to ask Wytaliba kids spend hours in the bus every day?

In reality rebuilding the school was flatly and simply a good thing to do and cost the government literally less than pocket change. The job represents about 0.002 per cent of the state's $83bn budget.

Closing the school would have been a horrific slap in the face to a community reeling from a deadly bushfire. State government, and its representatives Adam Marshall and Education Minister Sarah Mitchell deserve applause, not criticism, for making an immediate clear commitment to rebuild, and then doing it.

But it's not the only furphy I've been told about the stricken village.

One Facebook commentator repeatedly insists Wytalibans do not pay rates. This is a lie; they do pay rates.

And I've also been told the town has received more than its fair share of media attention, with claims Torrington has missed out on repairs. I've been to both villages, they were both in ruins.

Wytalibans are of course stereotyped as a bit different from the rest of us, and residents have long complained that has led to a sort of prejudice - a kind of bigotry reflected back on them by our political representatives, in the view of some. Maybe that's because they vote differently, I don't know.

Now I'm not saying this prejudice is fueling an attitude of skepticism towards the people of Wytaliba.

I'm not saying some are being overly critical of rebuilding efforts in a community that, I repeat, has faced a deadly bushfire in the recent past and is finally receiving the help it needs to rebuild.

I'm simply saying you should ask yourself if you would really want Glen Innes hospital closed if it burned down in a bushfire.

Andrew Messenger is an ACM journalist