Mayor and MP rally support for Telford staff in SIT takeover

Telford is hoping to re-open its doors to students following a proposal by the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) to take over the Balclutha-based institution.
MARY-JO TOHILL/STUFFTelford is hoping to re-open its doors to students following a proposal by the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) to take over the Balclutha-based institution.

Monday brought positive news that the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) looked set to take over as tertiary provider of the Telford agricultural training institute at Balclutha.

However, about 30 staff were facing their first week without pay, with their employer, Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre, going into interim liquidation with a $23 million debt before Christmas and unable to pay wages.

Tertiary Education Union organiser Kris Smith met with Telford staff on Monday following the announcement that SIT was set to take over as tertiary provider.
MARY-JO TOHILL/STUFFTertiary Education Union organiser Kris Smith met with Telford staff on Monday following the announcement that SIT was set to take over as tertiary provider.

As a result, Cadogan and New Zealand First MP Mark Patterson, who had been key players in negotiations to re-open Telford, had organised a Givealittle page for the community and wider New Zealand to provide financial aid and recognise “the insidious position that Telford staff find themselves in”, Cadogan said.

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“They’ve neither been sacked nor are they working. They’re in suspension, and there is no pay.”

The Telford campus at Balclutha that looks like it will be taken over by SIT.
MARY-JO TOHILL/STUFFThe Telford campus at Balclutha that looks like it will be taken over by SIT.

It was also a way to support an institution “that was dear to our hearts”, and was fighting its way to a more viable future, he said.

The money would be used to help staff get through the interim period while SIT put together a proposal to take to Education Minister Chris Hipkins that would allow the Invercargill-based institution to become the new tertiary provider of Telford.

The proposal would be with the minister and cabinet by the end of January for a decision.  

It is understood that the Tertiary Education Commission would be advising students who had enrolled at Telford to proceed. 

A meeting was held at Balclutha on Monday, at the Clutha District Council chambers to discuss a rescue package to be put to the government, which was attended by SIT, Cadogan, Patterson, Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker, members of the Telford Farm Board, the Tertiary Education Commission, NZAQ and the Tertiary Education Union. 

The liquidator and minister’s representatives also attended.

Following this, the union met with staff at the Telford campus.

Staff were requested by the union not to speak to the media about the outcome. 

Union organiser Kris Smith said it had been a positive meeting, with clear communication with SIT and the liquidator throughout the process.

“We are very supportive of SIT, so long as it proves to be a sustainable option.”

There was some comfort in the fact that Telford could once again be associated with a public provider of vocational education, she said.

But in the meantime it was a grim time for the staff, and the union was working with individual people for them to access assistance.

“We believe the suspension of pay and not being able to come to work is unjustified dismissal, and it may mean the difference between being able to get WINZ support, mortgage insurance and a mortgage [payment] holiday.

“It’s something we’re working on that we don’t know the outcome.”

Entitlements were still being worked out, she said.

Before the union meeting, a Telford staff member, who did not wish to be named, said they had already approached the Ministry of Social Development for council rates relief, because they did not qualify for a mortgage holiday. Processing could take up to 21 days.

In a statement, SIT chairman Peter Heenan said he was encouraged by the support from all parties. He attended the Balclutha meeting, along with chief executive Penny Simmonds.

Telford Farm board chairman Richard Farquhar said it was “really important that Telford be given the support from the government to ensure it had every chance of success with SIT”. 

Patterson, who had played a key role in the negotiations as New Zealand First MP, said he was satisfied with the outcome.

Stuff