Former Pinelands principal probed

The former principal of Pinelands Primary School, better known as the blue school, has been accused of allegedly embezzling funds from the school.

Pinelands Primary School parents are demanding answers from education authorities after the school’s principal was allowed to take early retirement after allegedly embezzling R350 000.

The Western Cape Education Department told the Tatler it had launched a forensic investigation into the allegations of financial misconduct against Mervyn Counsell, the former principal of what is commonly known as “the blue school”.

According to school governing body chairman, Gary Oliver, a forensic report found Mr Counsell had allegedly used the school funds to pay for a holiday; take out a golf membership; buy IT equipment and pay staff loans, including a loan for himself. And that he had used the school’s debit card for personal expenses and to entertain clients and staff.

The Tatler’s attempts to contact Mr Counsell for comment proved futile. The school refused to give out his contact information. We also tried to reach him through various family members, but they did not respond to messages, apart from one who told us the family had been “instructed not to hand out his number”.

WCED spokesman Paddy Attwell, said the forensic investigation had found evidence of “alleged non-compliance, or irregularity, but not fraud, corruption or theft.”

Mr Counsell, he said, had “allegedly received benefits from the school governing body, among other findings, without the authorisation of the department, as required by the South African Schools Act”.

Mr Oliver said the matter first came to light in 2015 when they started looking into the school’s finances.

“We asked the principal a couple of questions (about the school’s finances) and we did not receive the answers we were looking for and that is when we became suspicious,” Mr Oliver said.

The WCED had started investigating in April and May of 2016, but had only handed the findings to the governing body in February 2017.

“Nothing has been actioned by the WCED. The report shows that he allegedly embezzled the money. We (the governing body) had no access to the school bank account. The WCED should be taking action as that is their employee.”

He said if Mr Counsell had been a governing body employee “we would have taken action immediately”.

Mr Attwell said Mr Counsell had retired before he could face disciplinary action. He said according to legal advice the department had sought, Mr Counsell “had a right to retire and that the department had no legal basis to challenge this. The department has no legal powers to deduct the funds concerned from the educator’s pension, as suggested in some reports”.

Mr Attwell wouldn’t say whether the department would press criminal charges against Mr Counsell, only that further legal action may be pending.

The case has angered school parents. One of them, Adrian Williams said: “These are funds that could have been used to further improve my child’s education or take them to new places they could experience. Instead, the funds covered a holiday and a golf membership, our hard earned money giving somebody else a good time? This is ridiculous and something must be done.”

Another parent, who didn’t want to be named fearing her child would be victimised, said the WCED needed to tell parents what action it would take.

“This man has retired and is enjoying his retirement. This is stealing and is complete dishonesty. Can you imagine what R350 000 can do for a child or the school? It’s criminal and we as parents cannot allow this to get away from us,” she said.