Picture: Rudzani Matshili
Picture: Rudzani Matshili

Let's keep corruption out of school governing bodies

By GASANT ABARDER - Sunday Slice Time of article published Mar 25, 2018

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Cape Town - The scariest part of the recent movie remake of Stephen King’s It is not the countless scenes featuring the terrifying clown character Pennywise (although I believe Tim Curry played the role best in the cult 1990s TV series).

The most chilling scene is where the town bully and his two pals savagely beat a boy on a bridge. They’re about to carve into the fat kid’s tummy with a knife when a car approaches. For a moment there’s a sigh of relief as the bullies pause.

But the car’s adult occupants have vacant expressions on their faces, like tacit endorsements for the beating. The car passes and the bloody assault continues.

This is perhaps the most violent manifestation of the indifference of the adults of the fictional town of Derry where Pennywise feeds on the children. But there are more. Pennywise represents the evil sum of the indifference of the parents as scores of Derry’s children go missing.

Some 15 months ago, although I didn’t know it at the time, I was about to enter my own Derry nightmare when I was elected to a school governing body (SGB) in a by-election.

I wanted to serve mainly to learn about governance. But I got more than I bargained for.

This month I parted ways with the SGB after a new board was elected. March has been a significant month for parents, teachers and children in schools across South Africa with the election of governors to serve on SGBs. It is as important to our democracy as national, provincial and local polls.

My intention is not to discourage those who wish to serve on SGBs. Schools require strong financial and organisational governance to create environments for young people to thrive. The role of SGBs is thus not unlike the role of the government.

I would later learn about Corruption Watch’s research on schools. The stats are startling. Principals are the main culprits, the organisation’s 2016 annual report says. The report notes schools were involved in 1431 of the 4 391 corruption cases - more than one in four - referred to Corruption Watch.

Its research shows 55% of complaints involved the principal as the primary culprit, while 14% of complaints showed collaboration between principals and SGB members in corrupt activities.

My Derry moment happened at a meeting where a small group of parents wanted to remove the SGB through an unprecedented vote of no confidence. The parents charged, among other misguided allegations, that the SGB was holding on too tightly to the school’s finances. This, while the prudent financial management of public funds is one of the SGB’s primary functions.

Incredibly, the parents were less interested that the principal had been placed on forced leave and was the subject of a Western Cape Education Department (WCED) forensic investigation. Somehow, a few parent governors, including me, were accused of conspiring against the principal. I was falsely accused of nepotism by abusing my position as a governor and giving no fewer than 10 family members places at the school.

Several of the Pennywise’s trademark red balloons appeared in my mind’s eye in the school hall that night, where the vote of no confidence failed. At the subsequent school AGM the parents incredibly voted for a 0% fee increase. I kept thinking how they would accept whatever increase their banks dished out for car repayments, while happily skimping on their children’s school fees.

The WCED’s forensic report is yet to be released but a new SGB has been installed. The principal has since retired. A new principal will soon be appointed.

This is not a unique scenario. The same has happened at other schools and the WCED has been rather indifferent - like the parents of Derry.

The department has instead turfed lower hanging fruit like Brian Isaacs, former principal of South Peninsula High, who was a constant thorn in its side as a progressive principal.

There are new SGBs around the country. To governors I say: "Don’t be indifferent. You have an immense responsibility. Hold yourselves, parents, teachers and the principal accountable.

"Don’t be afraid to take the road less travelled because this is not a popularity contest. You’re administering public funds and you are the custodians of delivering excellence in education.

"Keep the Pennywises at the door by practising good governance."

* Follow more of Abarder’s musings on Twitter - @GasantAbarder.

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