WCED slated for more than R500k spend on disciplinary hearing to ‘persecute principal’
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Cape Town - The Western Department of Education’s dogged persecution of a high school principal who warned parents and learners against the opening of schools amid the Covid-19 pandemic has cost the department more than R500 000.
Heathfield High School principal Wesley Neumann is awaiting his fate after a disciplinary hearing lasting 25 days that saw parents, teachers and learners protesting in his defence.
Neumann faced six charges following his refusal to reopen the school amid the peak of Covid-19 infections last year.
The Western Cape Education Department (WCED) closed its case after six days, with seven witnesses, including the witnesses in an assault charge.
Neumann’s defence lasted 19 days, over three times longer than the WCED’s.
It was recently revealed during questions in the legislature that the current cost of Neumann’s disciplinary hearing was R663 326, which included R581 026 for legal representation and R82 300 for the presiding officer, while R103 718.50 of the R581 026 was spent on counsel in the Labour Court matter.
The ANC’s provincial spokesperson on education, Khalid Sayed, said it was unprecedented for a government department to spend more than half-a-million rand on a disciplinary hearing for one employee.
Sayed said a cost of more than R663 000 for a hearing must be a record fee for a disciplinary hearing.
He said it was clear that the WCED was determined to get rid of Neumann by all means possible.
“The WCED even hired a senior counsel on a matter of this nature,” he said.
“The persecution of Neumann will go down in history as the most expensive and exposes the DA’s hypocrisy, which has left white teachers fingered in fraud and malfeasance scot-free while it spends R663 326 to target a progressive principal,” said Sayed.
He said the WCED would cry inadequate funds when asked to account for unplaced learners next year, yet funds that could have been used to build more classrooms and employ more teachers were used to target excellent, hard-working and dedicated principals.
WCED spokesperson Bronagh Hammond said the nature of the seriousness of the charges being contemplated included an assault of a learner, failure to obey a legitimate instruction and bringing the organisation into disrepute.
Hammond said the legal bills included costs for both a Labour Court application and the formal disciplinary hearing.
She said the WCED was entitled, as was Neumann, to have legal counsel, and the Labour Court matter had been brought about by Neumann, not the WCED.
“We cannot be criticised for getting legal counsel for such an application, as it is common practice to get counsel in such a matter,” said Hammond.
She said Neumann also chose not to have union representation at his hearing and instead opted for legal counsel, and the department thus went the same route.
She said, ultimately, the remaining costs of the disciplinary were a result of the length of the hearing.
“The estimated budget for all legal matters in the WCED is approximately R7 million per financial year. This includes payments for external presiding officers and legal council when required,” she said.
According to the WCED, the case against Neumann has been concluded and was awaiting the finding of the presiding officer.
Educators Union of SA provincial chairperson André de Bruyn said the money often used to pay legal fees could be used to reduce educational inequalities and address the resource shortfalls at poorer schools.
Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools deputy chief executive Jaco Deacon said there was a human resources section in every department and it should be able to deal with all the internal investigations and hearings and should also have the capacity to defend the employer’s case at the Education Labour Relations Council.
Deacon said using external lawyers or advocates should be the exception rather than the rule.