Minister's concerns on Brindabella solvency, financial probity revealed (and the cost of bus ads)

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Brindabella Christian College is the subject of multiple deep concerns regarding governance and finances. Photo: File.

Material released by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) shows that the Commonwealth Education Minister had profound concerns about Brindabella Christian College including “severe liquidity issues” and “a very high risk” to the school’s solvency.

The material includes allegations the school spent up to $500,000 a year on bus advertising and up to $400,000 a year on lawyers.

Brindabella Christian Education Limited (BCEL), the charity that controls the school, appealed a decision by the Education Minister in May 2021 that it was not a “fit and proper person” to operate BCC. The school receives more than $10 million annually in ACT and Federal Government funding.

An agreement is believed to have been reached between the Minister and BCEL, but no details have been released. However, the grounds for the Education Minister’s original decision have now been made public in an AAT submission authored by James Emmett SC. The matters were disputed in the AAT by BCEL’s silk, Tom Brennan SC.

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The submission describes the BCEL Board, headed by longtime chair Greg Zwagjenberg, as inadequate, lacking appropriate size and diversity, and failing to include directors with relevant qualifications, including education, accounting, finance and property management, or parent representatives.

There was concern the board of three would not have a quorum when potential conflicts arose. Alyn Doig, one of three remaining members, is also a director of Life Unlimited Church at Charnwood, which owns the Brindabella Junior School site.

Record-keeping was described as difficult to access and board minutes were “inadequate”, containing “various inaccuracies”.

There were no minutes, for example, recording the June 2019 appointment of Brendan Major as BCC’s chief financial officer on a $16,000 monthly contract despite his lack of relevant qualifications. There was no evidence the market had been tested regarding the appointment’s value for money.

Although serious concerns were raised with external bodies, including the ACT Human Rights Commission and Commonwealth and Territory ministers, there was no evidence complaints were recorded or investigated by BCEL’s board. There were “limited policies and procedures available for staff, contractors or Board members”.

Despite multiple potential conflicts of interest among Board members, there were “only sporadic verbal declarations of interest”, conflicts were not disclosed in audited statements and “numerous related party transactions” were not disclosed.

Several related party transactions with Global Vision Technologies Australia were described as having “significant payment and benefit to Mr Zwagjenberg” but were not declared.

The construction of a solar tree by EVT Energy at a cost of $25,000 plus GST was also noted, and although the related party transaction was disclosed, the Minister’s submission said the disclosure “did not accurately describe the series of events”.

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Using document searches by the BCC Reform group, Region can reveal that in 2022, Mr Zwagjenberg was the sole director of EVT Energy and Global Vision Technologies. Both have invoiced the school for work on solar projects and the school cafe.

In 2019, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission listed financials for BCEL show a $25,000 ACT Government grant was paid in full to EVT Energy. According to a press release from the school, this funded a “solar tree” structure connected to “our first state-of-the-art intelligent Solar BBQ for the use of our staff and students”.

The press release described a partnership between BCC and EVT Energy, “who donated $100,000.00 … to prototype an educational art form for the purpose of inspiring imagination and further the education of our students on helping to reduce global carbon emissions”.

EVT Energy says 10 per cent of profits go to “low socio-economic communities in need” through its community arm, the Imagination Foundation. Brindabella has widely advertised itself as Australia’s “First Commonwealth Certified Australian ZNE Carbon Neutral Private School”.

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The Minister’s submission noted doubts over BCEL’s solvency and operation as a going concern.

Commonwealth-appointed auditors BellchambersBarrett said “there has been continuing diminution in BCELs financial viability and increasing deficiency of current assets compared to current liabilities” since 2016.

BCEL’s failure to meet profit and loss budgets, ongoing uncertainty about its banking arrangements and concerns regarding solvency were noted, as was BCEL’s failure to pay PAYG withholding to the Tax Office or lodge Business Activity Statements on time.

By December 2020, the submission says BCEL was “experiencing severe liquidity issues”, and there was “a very high risk to [BCEL’s] financial viability and solvency”. Cash on hand was, at one time, less than $10,000.

In March 2021, the National Australia Bank advised BCEL its loan facility would not be renewed and has since provided only short-term extensions to enable the College to refinance. An independent business review from KPMG commissioned by the NAB in 2022 suggested no clear indication the bank debt of more than $11 million could be serviced in the short term.

A former CFO informed KPMG of “unusually high costs” of $600,000 per year for cleaning, $300,000 per year for maintenance, $400,000 to $500,000 per year spent on bus advertising and $300,000 to $400,000 for lawyers.

Mr Zwagjenberg “denied the correctness of the concerns raised by [the former CFO] and/or suggested he was responsible for those concerns”.

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Solomon Kaddu11:10 am 25 Apr 23

As a parent, I chose this school for my kids. I am tired of all this commentary. If there is any criminal activity, report it to police. Otherwise these grievances that are continually being published here aren’t doing any one any help apart from those who want to point score. My children are entitled to an education like any other. I choose to supplement the government contribution with my own hard earned money. It is not a crime to do that. The administration aren’t angels, but neither is any of the self righteous key board fighters here.

Not to mention taking protected public land without permission. We have a petition at the moment to seek that the school returns and regenerates the land taken from the public:

This land is protected for environmental and community use, they haven’t paid for it, nor have they been given permission from the ACT Gov. It’s outrageous that they’ve got away with it for so long!

Imagine the influx and subsequent overcrowding of the nearby public schools if it shuts

pink little birdie11:48 am 05 Apr 23

Lol – I live in charnwood and BCC has the poorest reputation of all 3 Charnwood schools – which is saying something.
Also Christian schools also take from a large catchment area – it’s the only Christian school West of Belconnen town centre- Radford is the only other Christian school and it’s not comparable. Also parents choosing Christian schools aren’t likely to choose public schools anyway. Christian school education is one they need to seek out.

The students from Lyneham campus come from all over the ACT, it’s unlikely that any one school will have an influx of enrollment. Is this a straw man argument?

Where are the parents in this? Do they feel comfortable having their children attend a College operated by this crew and with it always in the headlines, or it is completely invisible to them?
Further, a Board of three which lack appropriate qualifications and/or experience, and which don’t follow appropriate processes to maintain transparency and accountability (including disclosures), surely must trigger something either at the legal or moral level?

The teachers must be awesome to keep students there.

Solomon Kaddu11:13 am 25 Apr 23

The aim of most of the commentary is to bleed the school of students.

GrumpyGrandpa9:42 pm 04 Apr 23

While issues relating to management of the school’s board are being investigated, it’s also worth asking how easy is it to get money from the ACT Government. They provided a $25,000 grant towards the school’s “solar tree” to power the school’s solar BBQ!

One of the news articles from last week also stated that the chair of the BCC board has or had shares in the solar energy company.

Or how easy it is to get land from the ACT Gov (jokes, kinda)…. This school was told they couldn’t build a car park on protected public land in Lyneham, but ignored the ACT advice and did it anyway.

Sign the petition everyone, and put the spotlight on this terrible behaviour.

Imagine if a regular person (or public organisation) just helped themselves to public land, reserved for the environment and the community.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how all these ultra-religious people, such as Morrison, Stuart Robert, Brian Houston and the entire Hillsong mob, and the BCEL people, completely lack any moral compass. It’s as if the Sunday teachings and preachings never apply to them.

Totally, they took protected public land and turned it into a car park without permission.

Please sign the local communities petition to have the land returned and regenerated.

It’s very unchristian to take land from the local community, especially because both the BCC school and the local primary school asked for land and both were told ‘No’…. But only the ‘christian’ school ignored the rules and helped themselves… Rules don’t apply to these guys. (I’ll try track down the FOI that goes into some of the details of this)

ChrisinTurner5:08 pm 04 Apr 23

Strange that this article makes little mention of the reported $4.8m owed to the ATO.

At end 2021 they owed $13.3m to NAB. Sits oddly against that KPMG recommendation.

Solomon Kaddu11:12 am 25 Apr 23

Who doesn’t have debt?

Ted Sherwood4:53 pm 04 Apr 23

The $64,000 question – or $6,400,000 with BCC – is: where to from here? Has the Department, assuming BCC can survive (and perhaps it’s too big to fail), wrought enough change via its agreement with BCC to stop the rollercoaster of crises that the current leadership has caused?

It’s so frustrating for the local Lyneham community. The BCC submitted a DA for more buildings in 2016. The community voiced strong concerns, enough that the ACT Gov asked them to do a Transport Impact Assesment. They fought the requirement, and they said they didn’t need to do an analysis of traffic or impact on local community because they wouldn’t be increasing enrollments…. Unsurprisingly, they did, and now they are so big it’s dangerous for the local road infrastructure, especially local kids walking to the public school… They should never have been able to get this big, and now if the ACT Gov tried to resolve it, there wouldn’t be students and families disrupted.

Solomon Kaddu11:16 am 25 Apr 23

If the condition was not to increase enrolment then this needs to be revisited

Here are all the reasons that religious institution & schools as well as charities and NFPs need to be transparent. They must be monitored, audited and checked for governance.

It is much too easy for an individual or group of individuals to use these organisations as a way to gain personal wealth at the expense of the community including their consumers, their staff, their suppliers and ordinary taxpayers who subsidise them.

Yes and no.
Every public organisation should be transparent, so we can easily call out fraudulent government ministers, corrupt business people and con artists on school boards.
But is it too easy for the latter? Courtesy of Liberal Party attacks on charities, we have a national register that shows there are over 2000 charities operating in Canberra, and this school board is the only one I can think of that is regularly in the news for the wrong reasons. And even suggesting a lot of people get into charities for their own benefit is insulting and out of line.

Stephen Saunders1:04 pm 04 Apr 23

A mil, just on those lame bus ads, and lawyers to fight off parents and the community. Says it all. But Zwagjenberg belongs to Australia’s preferred model for schooling, and nothing will stop the rivers of cash that BCC gets.

Solomon Kaddu11:19 am 25 Apr 23

This has worked for them. It appears lame to you but it has worked in their view. You can’t dictate business strategy.

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