Pinelands Primary School parents and governing body members protested outside the school last week calling on education officials to release the results of a forensic audit probing claims that the principal misappropriated school money.
Governing body chairman Gary Oliver said they had accused the principal, Mervyn Counsell, of mismanaging “large sums” of school funds more than six months ago, but the Western Cape Education Department had taken no disciplinary action against him.
Mr Counsell was still at the school until two weeks ago, when he was placed on sick leave until the end of the year.
Concerned parent Sharief Allie said they wanted the WCED to release the audit’s findings. He said governing body members had called a meeting on Tuesday November 22 to tell parents they were “very concerned” about “financial controls”.
Mr Oliver said, “Once we started asking questions about the allocation of school funds, we were told that we were questioning Mr Counsell’s integrity.”
He said the governing body had gotten wind of certain financial irregularities during their meetings and it had been a “little scary”. He had alerted the WCED, which launched an investigation.
Neither Mr Oliver nor the WCED were prepared to give details on the alleged irregularities or how much money was involved. The Tatler made repeated attempts to contact Mr Counsell for comment, but without success.
Mr Oliver said: “The investigation started in April this year and what I find very strange is that our school was audited twice by the Metro Central District and I am not an accountant but I picked up a few irregularities in one of the audits and I question its validity.”
He said the forensic audit had been concluded in May, but the governing body was still in the dark about its findings.
Mr Allie said parents had been upset after the meeting with the governing body because they thought everything had been “under control”. The report on the audit’s findings, he said, was long overdue.
“ It has been six months. It’s not so much that we feel the WCED needs additional time; it’s about us needing clarity on this matter. We need to plan ahead for the next year. We require absolute certainty with regards to how the children will be received with the fresh intake of pupils next year,” he said.
Mr Allie also accused school management of making “unilateral decisions” that had undermined the governing body’s efforts and caused problems at the school, such as the closure of the tuck-shop.
The tuck-shop has not been running for a while so many pupils have been going hungry,” he said.
Mr Allie said it surprised him that Mr Counsell had taken sick leave. “It’s questionable why the WCED did not serve him with a suspension notice, when news of his alleged wrongdoing surfaced especially as it deals with such large sums of money.
“There are certainly explanations that need to come to the fore and first and foremost we are concerned about the children. We want to understand why the toilets have not been fixed and why money has been channelled to specific people,” he said.
Millicent Merton said the department had done an initial investigation in April and May, but that had led to a forensic probe that was “still under way”.
She could not say when the report would be released, but confirmed that Mr Counsell had been put on sick leave until the end of the year.
Asked how the department planned to remedy the situation, she said it would make sure the governing body was given “the necessary training and support”. The school’s senior management would also be trained on the “roles of management and governance as well as on financial management”. The outcome of the investigation would determine further remedial action, if necessary.
Terrence Morgan, of Kensington, has a Grade 5 son at the school and he isn’t happy with the way the WCED has dealt with the situation. “This issue has been coming on since 2012 and still the WCED has not given parents any concrete answers,” he said.
The Tatler called and emailed the school repeatedly to get comment from Mr Counsell and acting principal Linda October. We left messages with the school receptionist, who refused to give a phone number or email address for Counsell. She said she would pass on our messages to Ms October, but by the time this edition went to print, we had not heard from her.