2 May 2023

Brindabella calls for Commonwealth education officials to face Anti-Corruption Commission

| Lizzie Waymouth
Brindabella Christian College

Under the agreement made with the Commonwealth Education Minister, Brindabella Christian College is required to carry out a survey of staff and students and appoint qualified accounts and finance team members. Photo: File.

Brindabella Christian Education Limited (BCEL) board chair Greg Zwajgenberg has described action against the school in an Administrative Appeals Tribunal hearing as “ill-conceived and flawed”, calling for a review of the Department of Education officials involved.

In a statement circulated with the school’s newsletter, Mr Zwajgenberg said he was “pleased with the final outcome” of BCEL’s March appeal but signalled the board’s legal team would be preparing a case file on the departments and agencies involved to refer them to the National Anti-Corruption Commission.

He also called for an internal review of the Department of Education officials involved in the hearing.

“Following an application to the AAT in the near future to have the true extent of the conduct placed on the public record through documents we obtained under subpoena, the Board will now be reviewing legal advice on the college recovering all the direct and indirect costs incurred in this matter, not to mention the untold reputational damage inflicted in the past three years from the relevant parties,” Mr Zwagjenberg said.

He added the board would now be moving forward “in Christian love and forgiveness”.

The Anti-Corruption Commission is expected to begin operations midway through the year.

READ MORE Strict conditions imposed on Brindabella Christian College finances, governance

Brindabella Christian College had appealed a 2021 finding by a delegate for the Minister that BCEL was not a “fit and proper person” to operate the school, which receives more than $10 million per annum in public funding.

The agreement reached between BCEL and the Commonwealth Education Minister in the AAT tribunal comprised more than 60 conditions, including a requirement that the school board be expanded from three to five, with two women and one current parent.

Many conditions have tight deadlines, which Mr Zwagjenberg said BCEL had set for itself.

The school is also required to carry out a survey of staff and students, appoint appropriately qualified accounts and finance team members, and ensure accounting systems include monthly reporting and forecasting broken down by business and campus.

Two new directors have been appointed to the board: Suzanne Power is the school’s executive principal for connected education; Flora Lee is a retired sales director and volunteer community radio announcer whose husband, Donald, is a teacher at the school. She has been appointed as an independent parent representative.

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Evidence tendered at the appeal revealed that BCEL owes close to $5 million to the Australian Tax Office.

By today (1 May), the school was required to lodge overdue 2021 financial statements, including Business Activity Statements, and provide the Minister with proof that loans have been reclassified as non-current liabilities, no longer depending on month-to-month approval.

The school is required to provide quarterly proof of financial viability to the Minister for Education. This must be certified by a qualified external auditor and Brindabella must notify the Minister within 14 days of any payment lapses.

Mr Zwagjenberg said the $4.8 million ATO debt was the subject of “an agreed ATO arrangement” and that BCEL was “in the middle of seeking to extinguish the debt and roll it into existing facilities”. An independent business review from KPMG commissioned by the NAB in 2022 suggested bank debt then stood at $11 million.

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Mr Zwajgenberg criticised “the manner in which misinformation was generated over the last three years”, claiming it was intentionally circulated by “vexatious parties” to damage the school’s reputation.

He said “media speculation over the case has also been dominated by vexatious behaviour involving several individuals with various personal agendas”, including parent and community groups.

The statement adds: “Senior Counsel for the Minister specifically accepted that the Parents for BCC and Community (sic) for Constitutional Reform at Brindabella Christian College are not considered to be genuine representatives of the College’s Community and its true stakeholders.”

However, in a statement, Rory Markham of Adero Law, acting for the ReformBCC group, noted they were not a party to the proceedings and the Minister’s Counsel made no statements regarding them in the AAT hearing. The sole purpose of the appeal was to consider the Minister’s initial decision, which did not include any reference to the group.

The full text of the agreement between the Department of Education and BCEL is available on the ReformBCC website.

Mr Zwajgenberg said the school had already completed over 90 per cent of the recommendations issued during the audit conducted by Saward Dawson and KPMG, and would be taking steps to ensure it provides the Department of Education with progress reports on the remaining changes.

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