Student Governing Body: Umkomaas Secondary School vs. (Mid South Coast) Rising Sun


Fri, Apr 14, 2017

Ruling by the Press Ombud

14 April 2017

This ruling is based on the written submissions of Mr Mergan Moodley, interim chairman of the Umkomaas Secondary School Governing Body (SGB), and those of Prakash Sadhai, editor of the (Mid South Coast) Rising Sun newspaper, as well as on a meeting in Umkomaas between me and the parties on April 11. Present at this meeting were 21 people in total. Moodley and Sadhai represented their parties.

The SGB is complaining about a front-page story in the Rising Sun of 28 February to 6 March 2017, headlined Gross irregularities alleged at Umk Sec.

Complaint                                            

The SGB complains that the following statements in the story were false and unfair:

·         The principal created a clique at school that controlled the school’s finances;

·         Police officers who were members of the SGB were intimidating children and parents to vote them onto the governing body;

·         Lucrative contracts were given to members of the SGB;

·         Money was being diverted from academic programmes;

·         Staff members were absent at an average rate of thirteen per day;

·         Money had been misappropriated, which led to unacceptable school fee increases and deteriorating matric results;

·         The tutorship programme was scrapped;

·         The budget for library equipment in 2016 was used to buy trestle tables (which were of no use);

·         Salaried teachers were paid for providing extra classes to learners; and

·         The principal was not available for comment.

Moodley adds that the journalist failed to verify the information, to contact other parents, and to check the attendance register to verify the alleged absenteeism.

The text

The article, written by Marguerite Huson, said two concerned parents had contacted the newspaper, alleging “gross irregularities” at Umkomaas Secondary. The parents reportedly provided financial documents dating from 2015 as well as communications with the Director of Education, Mr Bheki Ntuli, “highlighting those irregularities”.

The following extract adequately summarises the gist of the story: “The parents allege that the school principal, Mr P Jagdev, has systematically created a clique of parents, sympathetic to him, at the expense of those SGB members who are critical of his management style. It is alleged that this clique now runs the finances of the school and that some of them are using their positions as police officers in the Umkomaas area, to intimidate both children and parents into voting them onto the Governing Body. These persons are then conniving at being given lucrative contracts for various projects to be undertaken by the school and, it is claimed, substantial amounts of money are being diverted from academic programmes to infrastructure upgrades that should be financed by the Dept. of Public Works, and not by the school. It is claimed that staff members are absent at the rate of an average of 13 per day, so it has been proposed that 3 new educators should be appointed for 2017 to pick up the slack. The budget for this proposal has been set at R198 873 to be paid out of school funds.”

The reporter added the parents alleged that this misappropriation of school funds had led to deteriorating matric results as well as to the unacceptable increase in school fees.

In conclusion, the journalist reported that Jagdev was not available for comment.

The complaint in more detail

The SGB complains that the story, based on the opinion of two “concerned” parents, was false and unfair. He says the “concerned parents” to whom the article referred were probably former governing body members with a grudge and a political agenda.

Moodley points out that only parents and guardians who have children in the school were allowed to vote and not children as well (as stated in the story), and denies any allegation of intimidation during the voting process. 

He adds that the various stakeholders were consulted about the budget and its fourth draft was presented to the parents. “There was no objection after the presentation of the budget and reasons for the increase was explained in detail,” he says. He adds that a budget for three teachers was not a new practice – surrounding schools employed up to a total of nine SGB-paid teachers. To make a bold statement that “3 new educators should be appointed for 2017 to pick up the slack” for staff members being absent was incorrect, he argues.  

Moodley also says that tutorship programmes were not put in place and that qualified teachers offered to conduct extra classes for free. 

He attaches copies of the:

·         register “that verify that the election was uncontested and was free and fair”;

·         improvement programme; and

·         budget for 2017.

Rising Sun responds

Sadhai says after a meeting with four concerned members of the Umkomaas school community, the following points were clarified:

A clique

The editor says documentation dating back as far as 2009 “clearly indicate” that certain members of the SGB had, over the years, procured contracts for their relatives and friends at the expense of other companies. Copies of cheques signed and correspondence relating to these services and contracts were also produced. He attests, “According to the sources, these people continue to manipulate the principal and the SGB to their advantage.”

Absenteeism

Sadhai says the sources produced a staff register indicating leave applications. This document indicated that, on 5 February 2013, thirteen staff members were absent. “While this is not indicative of average absenteeism being unacceptably high, the register does record a large number of teachers being absent on a regular basis and the sources claim that teachers are often to be seen in and around the town or in neighbouring shopping areas during school hours.” Moreover, school children are also often to be seen on the playing fields during school hours – these children told their parents that they were outside because there were no teachers to teach them.

Misappropriated funds and fruitless expenditure

Sadhai says a source provided documentary proof of a healthy bank balance in terms of school fee payments by parents, but also excessive amounts being paid out for routine management such as grass-cutting (R7 500 in one month), electrical repairs, plumbing and replacement of broken windows. He says in many cases the SGB’s finance committee did not authorize those payments.

He says other alleged instances of misappropriation and fruitless expenditure include:

·         The committee is still waiting for a report on fans bought and replaced, on records of asset disposal and purchasing of new equipment, as well as on an updated presentation of an asset register and on the theft of two new computers;

·         Feedback is also awaited on the stripping of old computers;

·         One block of the school building was painted during the recess – but this part was constructed with red bricks and should not have been painted. (The principal indicated he had no knowledge of this);

·         The purchase of twenty trestle tables was unwarranted and the tables were lying in the library. Again, Jagdev said he had no knowledge of this. The treasurer was asked to return the tables and to obtain a refund;

·         The finance committee failed to hold the administration to account in terms of implementing a SCM system that is consistent with a fair and transparent process. The editor adds, “In procuring goods and services the process must be fair and transparent, focus on integrity and efficiency, comply with relevant legislative frameworks, obtain the best value for money, demonstrate a prudent use of resources and ensure that procurement is not for the personal benefit of office bearers or friends.” He also adds that the ultimate responsibility rests on the principal in this regard;

·         The treasurer did not hold regular meetings with the finance committee and did not consult with them in regards to transactions mentioned above. The editor asserts that the treasurer apologized for irregular transactions which fall under the jurisdiction of the finance committee; he was also asked to immediately stop authorizing service providers.

Scrapping of tutorship programme

The editor says the sources deny the principal’s statement that:

·         the tutorship programme was scrapped because of poor attendance by senior learners at whom the programme had been directed;

·         the content of the programme did not meet the learners’ curriculum needs; and

·         huge sums of money were paid to the tutors, making the programme financially unviable (he says the tutors were paid R250 per day for a weekly session).

He adds that an allegation that “the lowest pass rate obtained in the history of the school” after the programme was cancelled, proved that it must have had some academic merit.

Allocated library budget not utilized

Sadhai says documentary evidence proves that the 2016 library budget was not utilized – “yet trestle tables were purchased, supposedly for use in the library. These tables have since ‘disappeared’.”

Salaried teachers paid for extra lessons

The editor says Moodley has misread the complaint – it was stated in the article that some teachers “offered” extra lessons at a cost that poorer families could not afford. “These families relied on the tutorship programme to assist their children. Now that the programme has been scrapped, their children are being academically disadvantaged (according to sources).”

Chairman’s election not compliant with guidelines

Sadhai emphasizes that four sources maintain that Moodley’s election did not comply with the National Guidelines and that he should therefore be removed from his position.

He says it is important to note that Selene’s Flowers and Function Hire belonged to Logan and / or to his wife.

Moodley replies

Moodley says it must be noted that prior to him joining the SGB in June 2016, he was a part of a concerned parent group, who also noticed “a clique of parents” controlling the school and manipulating the principal at that stage. However, “rest assured that the said clique are not part of the SGB anymore,” he adds.

He asserts that evidence submitted by the newspaper with regards to the procurement process is for the period between 2008 and 2013.  

He says it is a known fact that Selene’s Function Hire, who was a service provider during this time, belonged to Mrs M. Naidoo who is the wife of Mr Logan Naidoo.   Having known this fact, Jane Naidoo nominated Logan Naidoo during the SGB elections in 2015 and he has joined the SGB since. Logan Naidoo was further elected the finance officer of the SGB as nominated by Jane Naidoo and seconded by Rajen Pillay. Coincidently Pillay was also a supplier of cleaning detergents and supplies to Umkomaas Secondary up until last year. The chairperson/s during this period should be held accountable. The newly constituted SGB has taken office 28th February 2017 and has since embarked on a procurement process that is transparent and fair.

Moodley says the staff register provided by the newspaper is dated 25 February 2013, and “[t]he current SGB cannot speculate on this matter”. He adds that the principal had supplied a recent attendance register which proves that the figures presented by the newspaper are wrong.

Also, the reference to the three new educators who were to be employed by the current SGB to pick up the slack and the evidence produced, referred to 2013. He says the reporting was misleading and adds, “Educators have committed to improve the quality of education by working closely with parents. We will monitor the levels of teacher absenteeism going forward.”

Moodley explains that the school fee increase needs to be viewed in a broader context. “While the school may have reserve funds, these funds will not cater for all the needs of the school. In comparison to other schools, we find that the school fees are at an acceptable level. Therefore at the 2017 budget meeting parents unanimously accepted the increase. It must be noted that the reserve funds in question have decreased over a period of time due to non-payment of school fees by many who could afford to pay…”

He adds:

·         At the 2016 budget meeting, held in March 2016, parents were aggrieved at the use of university students to tutor, as they were neither qualified nor experienced.  The former SGB nevertheless implemented the programme. He adds, “Copies of the registers will show a decline in attendance to the tutorship programme. It must be clarified that tutors were paid R250 per day and worked between 8am and 12pm on a Saturday. The educators at Umkomaas Secondary have already implemented an enrichment program at no cost to the school or to learners. This will continue during the holidays”;

·         The library was not in use for many years – it was closed after the previous SGB chairperson's niece, who was employed as the librarian, had been relocated. “The current SGB is in the process of employing a data capturer / librarian and we are optimistic that the library will be functional soon,” he adds;

·         The current chairperson was voted in unanimously as a member of the SGB – the minutes bear testament to this. He explains, “However, the electoral officer did not make the necessary nomination form available to the relevant signatories. The person nominating and the seconder completed the form according to what was reflected in the minutes. The DOE (Department of Education) was consulted and have found that the said individual is eligible to serve on the SGB;

·         It is concerning that minutes of past SGB meetings were made available to the media but parents were never allowed to view said minutes despite several appeals. Furthermore, irregularities concerning the minutes were raised with the DOE. Considering that all minutes were removed from the school and were in the possession of the previous SGB chairperson, “we are concerned that these minutes could have been manipulated in favour of certain individuals in the previous SGB”; and

·         Many of the newspaper’s concerns stem from a period before the current SGB was fully constituted.  Therefore, the previous chairperson should take responsibility for the state of affairs at Umkomaas Secondary; and

·         The Rising Sun took pictures at the school and printed a front-page article without calling at the school, and also did not contact the chairperson for a response prior to publication. 

Analysis

I accept that the story had been written before the present SGB was elected, as Huson pointed out several times, and that her text was therefore not aimed at the new governing body.

While this explanation did bring some clarity, in many ways it posed more questions than it brought answers. The problem is that the reasonable reader would most probably have interpreted the text as referring to the present situation, unfairly putting the new SGB on the spot. Huson agreed that her article could have been misunderstood for that reason.

Let me first explain why: Not only was the text presented as a news story (which presupposed that the information was new, otherwise why publish old data which were already in the public domain), but the story itself spoke to the present situation.

Consider the following quote from her article, with my comments in bold within brackets: “The parents allege that the school principal, Mr P Jagdev, has systematically created (not “had”) a clique of parents, sympathetic to him, at the expense of those SGB members who are (present tense) critical of his management style. It is alleged that this clique now runs (“now runs” cannot reasonably be interpreted as referring to the past) the finances of the school and that some of them are using (the present continuous tense) their positions as police officers in the Umkomaas area, to intimidate both children and parents into voting them onto the Governing Body. These persons are then conniving (present continuous tense) at being given lucrative contracts for various projects to be undertaken by the school and, it is claimed, substantial amounts of money are being diverted (present continuous tense) from academic programmes to infrastructure upgrades that should be financed by the Dept. of Public Works, and not by the school. It is claimed that staff members are absent (present tense) at the rate of an average of 13 per day, so it has been proposed that 3 new educators should be appointed for 2017 to pick up the slack. The budget for this proposal has been set at R198 873 to be paid out of school funds.”

Also, Huson never explained that her story was not directed at the present situation.

Clearly, this calls for proper clarification as the allegations were of a serious nature (on which I shall elaborate below).

Secondly, I am concerned about the apparent ease with which Huson quoted her sources, without independently verifying her information.

Huson pointed out that she did use the word “allegedly.”

The use of the word “allegedly” has its place, yes, and it is important to use it at the right time, but it does not by default guarantee that the publication of an allegation is ethically acceptable. I have said this numerous times before, and I am repeating it here: The fact that someone has made an allegation, is in itself not enough ground to publish it – there has to be some justification for publication. In addition, for example, an allegation may be slanderous, and the repetition of defamation is also defamation.

Huson should have, but did not, attempt to verify the information.

Furthermore, the allegations are of a serious nature. These for example:

·         The principal has created a clique, at the expense of those critical to his management style;

·         This clique runs the finances of the school;

·         Some members of the SGB are using their positions as police officers to intimidate children and parents into voting for them;

·         These persons are conniving to secure lucrative contracts for various projects;

·         Substantial amounts of money are being diverted from academic programmes to infrastructure upgrades that should be financed by the Department of Public Works; and

·         Staff members are absent at an average rate of 13 per day.

These are all serious allegations – which cry out for some form of verification.

Sadly, this is lacking. For example, the journalist did not check the attendance register to verify just how many teachers were absent on any specific day, let alone obtaining such a register over a period of time in order to establish an average which would fairly reflect the situation.

If the reporter spoke to people who were allegedly intimidated, she neglected to mention it.

Here is another example: At the meeting, I was presented with documentation as “evidence” to substantiate the allegation that members of the SGB “connived” to get “lucrative contracts”. However, this proved to be no evidence at all, as those contracts were made years ago with a person who was not even on the SGB at the time. Had the journalist taken this information into account, she probably would have thought twice before reporting that allegation.

Lastly, I do not think that the statement at the end of the article, namely that the principal was not available for comment, was fair to him. He certainly was “available” – but the Department of Education does not allow him to speak to the press (it has a communications office for that purpose). He did not comment – not because he was not available, but because he was not in a position to do so.

But all is not bleak on the Rising Sun’s horizon.

I do not for one moment think that there are no problems at the school. As far as I could ascertain, that is not in dispute. Therefore, I commend the publication for its concern in this regard, and for taking its role as watchdog seriously. My finding against the newspaper should certainly not deter it from continuing to bark and to bite, when required.

And there is more good news. The meeting has done far more than just to clarify the complaint for me – I got the distinct impression that the parties have moved closer to each other, and that communication lines would improve.

Moodley admitted at the meeting that there had been a clique – but said, with the new governing body that is no longer the case. I think he, and the other members of the SGB, deserve an opportunity to prove themselves.

But that does not mean that the Rising Sun should now sit back and let things drift. Far from it. With a vibrant newspaper to keep it on its toes, I am convinced that both parties can work together to serve society – which is what both the school and the press are all about.

By saying that, I am not advocating sunshine journalism (pun intended).

I am cautiously optimistic that the “bad blood” leading to this complaint is in the process of being turned into a healthy tension.

Finding

The story intended to reflect old problems, but did it in such a way that it could have been misunderstood as reflecting on the new SGB, with the implication that all those old problems continued to exist. That was unfair and in breach of Section 1.1 of the SA Code of Ethics and Conduct which reads, “The media shall take care to report news … fairly”.

The publication of serious allegations, without any attempt to verify those statements, was in breach of Section 1.7: “Where there is reason to doubt the accuracy of a … source and it is practicable to verify the accuracy thereof, it shall be verified. Where it has not been practicable to verify the accuracy of a report, this shall be stated in such report.”

Seriousness of breaches

Under the headline Hierarchy of sanctions, Section 8 of the Complaints Procedures distinguishes between minor breaches (Tier 1), serious breaches (Tier 2) and serious misconduct (Tier 3).                                                                                        

The breaches of the Code of Ethics and Conduct as indicated above are both Tier 2 offences.

Sanction

Rising Sun is directed to apologise to the SGB of Umkomaas Secondary School for:

·         publishing a story which could have been misunderstood as reflecting on the new SGB, with the implication that all the old problems continued to exist; and

·         publishing serious allegations without any attempt to verify them.

The text should:

·         be published:

o   on page one (where the article in dispute was published);

o   online as well, if the offending article was carried on its website;

  • start with the apology;
  • mention the allegations as listed under “Complaint” above;
  • refer to the complaint that was lodged with this office and to the meeting that was held;
  • mention that I have commended the newspaper for taking its role as watchdog seriously;
  • end with the sentence, “Visit www.presscouncil.org.za for the full finding”; and
  • be approved by me.

The headlines should contain the words “apology” or “apologises”, and the school’s name.

Appeal

The Complaints Procedures lay down that within seven working days of receipt of this decision, either party may apply for leave to appeal to the Chairperson of the SA Press Appeals Panel, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, fully setting out the grounds of appeal. He can be contacted at Khanyim@ombudsman.org.za.

Johan Retief

Press Ombud