Parents at Brindabella Christian College have appealed to ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry, Member for Fenner Andrew Leigh, Christian Schools Australia and their own Board to sort out the governance problems that have led to the departure of five principals and multiple staff since 2015.
This week, WorkSafe ACT confirmed that it is investigating allegations of bullying and harassment after parents and former staff members alleged the school has a “toxic culture” where intimidation and intrusive management were commonplace.
WorkSafe has confirmed that several workplace bullying claims have been approved for payouts this year. Previously, parents had also compiled a list of concerns about the school for the Australian Not-for-profit and Charities Commission.
Region Media has been told that in response to appeals for help from parents, the CEO of the Christian Schools Association sought out Brindabella’s Board members last week at a Perth schools conference and spent “a considerable amount of time” with them canvassing the issues.
“I understand they were constructive conversations. From our perspective we want to work with the Board to address these concerns,” said Mark Spencer from the CSA.
CSA is a voluntary fellowship of autonomous Christian schools, governed by a National Council, working with State Councils, each elected by the member schools. The organisation can expel schools that do not meet ethical standards of governance, among other criteria. CSA also provides governance models and guidance for member schools.
A former inaugural BCC Board member says that when the school was transferred from the Uniting Church in 2001, a transitional board with an extensive skill set was established. The intention was for it to transition towards a broader community representation via CSA governance standards as the school matured, but that never happened.
Instead, an interim structure remains in place. As inaugural members left, the Board eventually fell back to the four current members and has not substantially changed for some years.
Criticisms from parents and former staff centre on the school’s governance. Brindabella is run by a private not-for-profit company and its Board has three company members and a chair. The Board, which can appoint up to 11 members under its constitution, is currently closed. Parents say that attempts to join the company, and therefore the Board, have been repeatedly rebuffed.
They further claim that the three other Brindabella Christian College Board members have become all but invisible as the school dramas unfold. They are Dr Wendy Chesworth, a physiotherapist; barrister Alyn Doig; and real estate agent David Whittem. *
At the end of June, a meeting of the school community formulated a list of questions for the Board. Parents say they received no response until July when they sent a second letter, giving the Board 14 days to respond to their concerns, or the dispute would be escalated.
Questions included whether teachers were being paid on time; why the school’s net cash balance was low; whether the Board had access to and read staff emails or if a third party did so; whether some senior staff had a conflict of interest with regard to school supply contracts; why there were no staff or parent representatives on the Board; why a review of the school’s governance had not been released; whether the Board was aware of bullying allegations and whether it would meet with the 66 parents who had made specific enquiries.
A personal letter from the Board to some parents stated that “Comments or actions directed at damaging BCC or creating division or disputation will not be supported”. Answers were provided to most questions although the Board judged matters relating to its finances and governance review to be “commercial-in-confidence”.
In response to questions about accessing staff emails, the Board denied this was the case, but described these as “unusual questions” and said, “it is difficult to understand a legitimate purpose for the question”. Board members also indicated that since the letter addressed all concerns, they would decline to meet the 66 parents making specific enquiries and that the Board was not aware of any bullying.
In conclusion, the letter advised parents that “The Board of BCEL [Brindabella Christian Education Ltd.] operates in accordance with its Constitution at all times and complies with all Commonwealth and State Guidelines for the operation of non-Government Schools and ACNC requirements. BCEL reports publicly through Audited Financial Reports and our Annual Report on the operations of the College.”
“We’re trying every avenue,” a parent said. “We’ve asked for help from the ACT Education Minister, the Federal government, the Australian Not-for-profit and Charities Commission, and Christian Schools Australia.
“We don’t know where else to turn.”
*edited to correct Board membership details