The fund helps not-for-profit preschools create additional places in areas of “need and demand” across NSW. Organisations can apply to build, renovate or extend their premises or buy a car to “cater for increasing enrolments”.
Last year just two preschools in the Sydney metropolitan area won grants, compared to five in the Nationals electorate of Cootamundra alone. Several of the 32 grant recipients over the two years were located in rural towns with declining populations.
Last week NSW Auditor-General Margaret Crawford said she would investigate the government over its handling of another grants program, the Stronger Communities Fund, in which Premier Gladys Berejiklian approved more than $100 million for councils in Coalition seats months before last year’s election.
The preschool revelations have stunned cash-strapped preschool operators in the booming growth corridors of Sydney, who say they have been continually overlooked for funding as they struggle to keep pace with skyrocketing demand.
Labor accused the Nationals of preschool pork barrelling to shore up support in their bitter election fight against the Shooters and Fishers in 2019.
“Pork barrelling is wrong and offensive to the vast majority in any case, but when children are played in pork barrelling that’s absolutely atrocious,” said Labor’s early childhood spokeswoman Jodie Harrison.
“It is a real concern when you think that every child deserves a good start and these funds appear to have been so blatantly used for political purposes.”
The Start Strong fund is overseen by Ms Mitchell, a Nationals MLC who has been Minister for Early Childhood Learning since 2017. In 2019 she also became Education Minister.
She directed questions to the NSW Department of Education, which said it had independently administered the competitive assessment process for the grants.
“All eligible applications are assessed by a panel against a range of pre-established criteria,” a spokeswoman said.
Applications were assessed against the program guidelines and considered factors including the need and demand for preschool places, the proposed number to be created, value for money and readiness to proceed, she said.
“Community preschools provide a greater share of preschool education relative to other service types in rural and remote parts of NSW,” the spokeswoman said.
In 2018, grants were handed to preschools in Gilgandra and Griffith, located in the key election battlegrounds of Barwon and Murray respectively. Both seats fell from the National Party to the Shooters and Fishers at the 2019 election.
Another grant found its way to a preschool in the Monaro seat of Nationals leader John Barilaro.
One of the applicants that missed out was the Shepherd Centre for Deaf Children, which has been seeking funding for years to build a preschool in Sydney’s Macarthur region, the fastest growing area in NSW.
An application by Liverpool City Council to establish a 40-place community preschool attached to the Wattle Grove Youth Centre was also knocked back.
“The council service closest to the proposed preschool has a waiting list of more than 309 children,” Liverpool Council’s acting chief executive Dr Eddie Jackson said.
Laura Tava-Petrelli is the director of the North Ryde Community Preschool, a suburb which has absorbed much of the city’s exploding density during the apartment building boom.
The preschool, which specialises in children with special needs, has been applying for about $750,000 to build a multi-purpose centre for “quite a number of years” to accommodate an extra 25 children daily.
“We have a very long waiting list and we just seem to miss out every year,” Ms Tava-Petrelli said.
The preschool has ample land available for the multi-purpose centre. However, raising the funds required to build it has been near impossible for the parent-run organisation, which had humble beginnings in a scout hall 35 years ago.
“We’re doing it alone basically,” Ms Tava-Petrelli said. “The calls are just incredible, families wanting to get kids in, crying on the phone. They’re very desperate. It’s really quite sad.”
Ms Tava-Petrelli said she received a phone call from a bureaucrat following last year’s failed grant application and was told she was “close”, but priority had been given to rural areas and preschools for Indigenous children.
“Which is fine, I’m not begrudging any of that,” she said. “But surely there’s enough in the pot to go around.”
Carrie Fellner is an investigative reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.