In the space of a month the staff at Tahunanui Community Centre have been on a roller coaster of emotions.
On December 21 last year, the teachers of the pre-school, which is owned by the centre, said goodbye to the families that attended the early childhood centre and were looking forward to a break before starting back again in the new year.
However, that afternoon teacher Brigitte Older received a call saying that the community centre was in severe financial stress and would have to be closed, along with the pre-school.
At the start of the 2017/18 financial year the centre had cash of $141,292 but that had dwindled to $43,590 by the end of it. It was revealed that the centre was burning through $8000 a month for the first six months of the new financial year until it ran out of money.
“We had no idea that anything was happening,” says Brigitte. “I really was in disbelief.”
She went straight round to her co-worker’s house and spent the evening figuring out how to contact all the parents to help them find new centres.
“It was a crazy time. The biggest thing wasn’t that we had lost our jobs, it was the families that we had lost. The idea that we had lost all our children and they wouldn’t have anywhere to go.”
Brigitte says all the other centres in the area for under-twos were full, so there was nowhere else to go. She sat down with her fellow teacher Denise Forbes and they decided to organise a meeting with Rachel Boyack and Murray Leaning.
“Next minute there were 12 of us and they had brought all these financial records. It was amazing to see.”
She contacted the Nelson Tasman Kindergarten Association’s chief executive Craig Vercoe and he immediately came down to the meeting.
“He said that he would do everything to help and he did.”
A plan was put in place. The nearby Tahunanui Kindergarten would take all the children from the early childhood centre. But then the association decided to lease the building, which was approved by the new board. All the older children stayed at Tahunanui Kindergarten with the younger ones moving back to the pre-school.
It has been five weeks since that phone call and only three children have not returned. Within days they had eight new enrolments and the centre now has more children than they did before. Now they have 24 children.
“We went from going through the grief process but then I got into that fighting spirit, I knew I wasn’t going to give up,” Brigitte says.
“We just feel so supported and blessed that people came together to help us.”
New board for centre:
Meanwhile, a new board has been elected to govern the Tahunanui Community Centre.
The decision was made last week after the former board resigned in the wake of the financial mess which threatened to close the institution.
New board chair Murray Leaning told the meeting that the new group of nine people had put in “many hundreds of person hours and some of their own money … on behalf of the Tahunanui Community”.
It was initially thought that the centre would have to be liquidated to pay back the tens of thousands of dollars it owed. Murray said that the board voted not to do that as it sent the wrong message to the community and funders. However, it was clear that the pre-school building needed to be sold, hopefully to the Nelson City Council or the Nelson Kindergarten Association, and that money used to discharge debts.
He also said there was a perception that the financial troubles arose because of a government grant not being renewed.
“This is absolutely not the case.”
Murray said there was a forensic accounting team undertaking a thorough investigation of the centre’s financial practises.
“We cannot make public our concerns until the investigations have been completed.”
In the meantime, the council has agreed to have their facilities contractor operate the building for three months, at council’s cost.
The centre’s free drop-in health clinic with Emma Agnew also re-opened last week with support from the Nelson Bays PHO, until the end of June.