Schools hit back after bad audits

TALIA SHADWEL
Last updated 14:25 07/12/2012

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Two Manawatu schools fingered in government audits for alleged board mismanagement have challenged the report, with one defending the actions it took after it was forced into crisis mode when its former principal was convicted of sex offences.

Hato Paora College, near Feilding, and College St Normal School in Palmerston North were both highlighted in a recently released Auditor-General report.

Boys boarding school Hato Paora was labelled in breach of the Education Act for improper board management last year.

College St Normal School was red-flagged by auditors after its board allegedly paid a company owned by one of its trustees $87,000 for building and repair work without Education Ministry approval, which is required for works costing more than $25,000.

After the conviction of former principal Elvis Shepherd for sex offences against pupils at another school, Hato Paora board chairman Peter Douglas said the integrated school had taken the unusual step of combining its constitutionally separate boards after the school was thrown into crisis, which was what had confused auditors.

Shepherd was suspended in November 2007 after being charged with sexually abusing students at both Hato Paora in Feilding and Hato Petera College in Auckland.

He was sentenced to eight years and four months' jail in the High Court at Palmerston North for sexually abusing two teenage boys at the Auckland school in the early 1990s.

It later came to light that a Hato Petera board member had warned Hato Paora in 2001 of the sex abuse allegations in Auckland - but Hato Paora still hired Shepherd and the school's own internal investigation cleared him of wrongdoing in the face of his new pupils' accusations.

But at a retrial in 2010 Shepherd was acquitted of some of the charges relating to the Feilding students and although two juries could not reach verdicts on some charges he was found guilty on all four charges relating to the historical abuses.

In the aftermath, the school's leadership had tried to combine the trustees' work with that of the proprietors at the integrated school, bringing together about 20 people to "build confidence" while the school recovered from the scandal.

The measures the school took had since been recognised by the Ministry of Education and measures to ensure the two governing bodies were kept separate had been adopted, Mr Douglas said.

"They didn't have a criticism of the work we do - it was a criticism of the way it was recorded in our minutes . . . we didn't properly define distinctions between the board of trustees and the trust board," he said.

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"We had a decent enough record to show that the money that was government money for education [wasn't] being stuck in the other end.

"It reads much worse than it is.

"There's no sinister attempt by anybody in trying to do things together.

"You can imagine when you have got a charge like that you know there's a whole lot of tension you have to deal with, so this is what we tried to do in order to create a more unified set of circumstances in that period."

College St Normal School board of trustees chairman Pete Frizzell said the school's breach occurred after invoices were incorrectly coded to the trustee contracted to do car park renovation work, which should have been directly invoiced to the school. Mr Frizell was unimpressed with the ministry's communication on the issue, calling the report a "witch-hunt".

"The school has been in communication with the ministry throughout this year to seek the required approval retrospectively.

"Unfortunately, all responses to information have resulted in requests for new, previously unrequested, information.

"There is no suggestion that the board trustee has at any time behaved inappropriately or that any funds have been misused or misappropriated. In fact, the trustee's involvement has saved the school tens of thousands of dollars over the last few years.

"We remain hopeful that the ministry will choose to employ some common sense and engage with our school about gaining retrospective approval."

The ministry did not return calls.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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