Schools Supporting members at flood-ravaged school

The extensive flood damage to Darraweit Guim Primary School.

Darraweit Guim Primary School’s historic bluestone building has sat where Deep Creek and Boyd Creek meet for more than 150 years, in a beautiful valley on the far eastern edge of the Macedon Ranges. The waterways enhance the natural beauty of this tree-filled corner of regional Victoria, about a ten-minute drive west of Wallan, providing the perfect spot for environmental studies classes. Unfortunately, the creeks’ banks have also burst many times across the decades. 

On Friday 7 October, the school was warned that flooding was expected, yet again. “So, we stacked everything up on the tables and left for the weekend, hoping that everything would still be there,” says AEU sub-branch president Julie Schier, who teaches Grades 2–4 at Darraweit and is the school’s disability and inclusion coordinator. 

That turned out to be a false alarm. “We came back on the Monday and there were no problems.” However, a supercell storm was waiting in the wings – and while Julie and her colleagues knew they were about to get hit, “I don’t think we expected it to be anything like it was.” 

CFA volunteers came through on Wednesday, helping them sandbag the school, portable classrooms and admin building. Kids were advised to stay at home. “It was already raining,” Julie recalls. 

She was on her way into the school on Thursday morning when principal Carol Booker called to say that flooding was imminent. As Julie was only five minutes away in her car, she decided to help however she could, stacking as much as possible in the admin building, which sits six steps higher than the bluestone where Julie works. “One of the staff took the chickens home, we took the padding off the playgrounds, and we tried to put anything that might float away somewhere safe.”

“It was over head height inside the bluestone and the admin building. The two portables were waist height.”

Julie Schier

Around 10am, they could see the water rising rapidly in the car park and made the call to leave. Less than 24 hours later, Carol called Julie with the devastating news that everything was gone.

“My classroom was the hardest hit,” Julie says. “It was over head height inside the bluestone and the admin building. The two portables were waist height.”

It is difficult to wrap your head around the scale of what’s lost in a catastrophic event like this. “Chairs, cushions, tables, books, bookshelves, the school server, literacy sets… everything was gone,” Julie says.

“Someone told me they’d sent an email the other day saying that no one was answering the phones at school. I said, ‘That’s because there are no phones anymore’. Anything the water touched had to go because of contamination from septic tanks. We weren’t allowed to salvage anything.”

Teacher Julie Schier is coming to terms with the impact of the floods on her classroom at Darraweit Guim Primary School.

“Chairs, cushions, tables, books, bookshelves, the school server, literacy sets… everything was gone.”

Julie Schier

As a tiny school with a corresponding budget, most of their classroom resources were self-funded, Julie notes. She had built up a lot of equipment over 26 years of teaching. Replacing all of that feels daunting.

The school has been temporarily accommodated at Wallan Primary. Julie says their support has been wonderful, but the relocation has been traumatic, too. “It will be good to be back on our grounds in demountables, because I’ve got kids with special needs who are finding the change really difficult. Others are feeling down, or have had recurring nightmares that they were stuck at the school when it flooded.”

Sobering reality

AEU branch secretary Erin Aulich has been shocked by the scale of the floods. “It’s much bigger than I thought, and what’s different about this time is that it’s widespread across the state,” she says.

“The largest impacted area is Rochester, a little town where only two or three houses haven’t flooded. And we saw major flooding in Shepparton, Echuca and Kerang. But it’s also been in the city, with Maribyrnong in Melbourne and Lancefield not too far out.”

The realisation that personal belongings kept at school are not covered by insurance policies has been confronting for many affected members. That’s why the AEU has made $500 possession claims available on top of the $1,000 flood disaster support for members who have lost their homes, and the same amount for sub-branches.

Teacher Kate Kilkenny inspecting the damage to the school buildings.

So far, more than $50,000 has been distributed. “Schools are insured for things like laptops, but not for any of the personal teaching items that they’ve collected, sometimes over decades,” Erin says. “This $500 acknowledges that and helps them start again.” As Erin notes, some members have been told it could be up to six months until they’re back in their homes. “It’s a sobering thought.”

Julie is grateful for the union’s support. “[AEU organisers] Meaghan Flack and Krystyna Edwards have been fantastic, letting me know about the support options available, both for individuals and for the sub-branch. I think the thing to remember is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s going to take us a long time to recover.”

The local community has also been “brilliant”, she says. “Looking out for each other – we do that pretty well in a small community. We really care for our families.”

Any members needing assistance with accessing AEU support or other issues related to the impact of the flooding, including employment, contact your union organiser or the AEU Member Support Centre on 1800 238 842 or [email protected].

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