Defence funding seals Williamtown Preschool future

RAAF Base Williamtown Group Captain Peter Cluff and preschool director Michelle Curtin with Dominic, Saxon and Fletcher, aged 4.

RAAF Base Williamtown Group Captain Peter Cluff and preschool director Michelle Curtin with Dominic, Saxon and Fletcher, aged 4.

Around 45 preschool families left in limbo three months ago when the Department of Defence announced it would be withdrawing funding have been offered a lifeline.

The news that Williamtown Preschool would be able to keep its doors open beyond December 2018 has been described by some parents and staff as “the best Christmas present ever”.

Preschool director for the past 16 years, Michelle Curtin, said that a compromise with both Defence and property owners, the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, was reached this week, allowing the preschool to continue operating at its Raymond Terrace site for the next 12 months.

“The deal was clinched after Defence agreed to part-fund the lease of the building to the tune of $73,000,” she said.

RAAF Base Williamtown Group Captain Peter Cluff confirmed on Tuesday that Defence had approved the funding application, enabling the pre-school to remain in its current facility until November 2019.

“This grant provides ongoing support to Defence families and the community while the pre-school identifies an alternate venue to operate from in 2020,” he said.

Ms Curtin said that three months of tough negotiations had resulted in a win-win for all concerned.

“We are very grateful for this generous offer which will allow us some breathing space and the option to apply for state government grants to build a new facility in preparation for 2020 and beyond,” she said.

“We have been in negotiations with Port Stephens Council in search of a suitable site in either Raymond Terrace or Medowie.”

The Catholic diocese operates a string of St Nicholas early education centres, providing high quality care and education. 

Diocese CEO Sean Scanlon said that the aim was to ensure childcare services would continue to be available to RAAF and civilian families.

St Nicholas is taking applications for the Raymond Terrace centre ahead of the January opening.

“We plan to open another centre at Medowie where the diocese is aiming to build a new school – the Catherine McAuley Catholic College – in 2020,” Mr Scanlon said.

“The $26 million development application for this new school – which comprises the college, a primary school and a new St Nicholas early education centre – has been submitted to the Port Stephens Council.”​

Williamtown Preschool operated on the RAAF Base at Williamtown for more than 40 years until 2016 when the facility, along with the daycare and playgroup centres, moved off base due to aircraft noise and to allow for the nearly $1 billion in new infrastructure currently taking place. 

The preschool, which caters for around 45 Defence and civilian children aged 3-5, moved into temporary premises at Raymond Terrace which was subsequently purchased by the Catholic diocese.

Defence’s announcement in mid-August that it would “discontinue funding the service” once the current lease ended in December 2018 was met with widespread anger by staff and parents.

The reason provided by Defence was that “a recent independent review had shown a significant increase in community-owned childcare and preschool services in the Newcastle and Williamtown area, including more than 350 childcare and 400 preschool places available”.

“Given the figures, Defence believes there is no longer a requirement for a new, purpose-built facility,” the letter stated.

These figures have been challenged by Ms Curtin. 

“And besides, these facilities do not offer the same level of support to Defence personnel as we have done for 40 years, in fact for some families we are their only means of support,” she said.