News

Meeting set with Hopewell principal, school board

BY HG HELPS Editor-at-Large helpsh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, April 20, 2014    

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THE embattled principal of Hopewell High School in East Hanover, Joyce Irving, who has been implicated in a corruption probe at the school, will face the full board of governors of the institution after the Easter holidays to answer certain questions, the ministry of education has confirmed.

The education ministry's Director of Communication Byron Buckley told the Jamaica Observer last week that Irving had much to respond to.

"She has been asked to appear before the full board later this month," Buckley stated.

"The board looked at the preliminary report and arrived at several multiple charges that the principal must answer to," Buckley continued.

The preliminary report that Buckley referred to was submitted to the board several weeks ago, which cited instances of irregular activities at the school.

It is understood that Irving, a veteran educator of over 30 years, has retained the services of a prominent attorney-at-law as she begins the uphill climb to clear her name.

"She will have to provide some compelling information and give sound reasons for some of the out-of-place things that have been recognised at the school during the time that she has been principal," an education ministry source told the Sunday Observer midweek.

"If she cannot explain some of the things, then strong disciplinary action could be taken against her," the source said.

Irving, 58, has been the first and only principal of the co-educational school since it opened its doors to students, offering tuition from grades seven to 11, on September 4, 2006.

At the time, the school started with 400 students (207 girls and 193 boys), and 19 members of the academic staff.

The school population has now improved to just under 900 students, with 56 academic staff members.

Irving was suspended in January of this year, after she refused a school board request for her to step aside while it conducts an investigation into financial irregularities at the newest of six high schools in the parish.

Since then, Leonie Dunwell, an education officer based at the Ministry of Education's region four offices in Montego Bay, has been acting as principal of the institution based on the outskirts of the bubbly town that it is named after.

On the heels of Irving's suspension, Education Minister Ronald Thwaites said that the board acted "within its competence in accordance with the Education Regulations", and expressed the hope for what he determined, a quick resolution of the matter.

"The purpose of the school is student achievement and if there are administrative or governance difficulties, we would like to settle these quickly and get ahead with the task of running a good school," Thwaites said.

One school board official who declined to be named, told the Sunday Observer that a meeting of the board was held at the school last Tuesday to, among other things, lay the foundation for the long-awaited sit-down with the suspended principal.

The board removed its vice chairman recently, as she is said to be the sister-in-law of the principal. She also served as a member of

the Personnel Committee, two members of which conducted the preliminary investigation. The board cited conflict of interest as the reason for her removal, as it emerged during the investigations that the board member's signature appeared on some of the vouchers being examined.

Board chairman Hervin Stennett, a pastor and retired police officer, late last year mandated two members of the board -- Lincoln Wright and Aston King, the latter the son of former Member of Parliament for Eastern Hanover Dr Aston King -- to enquire into several concerns of irregular activities. It is those findings that have been submitted to the full board for consideration of disciplinary action against Irving.

The investigations found, among other things, that graduation fees were not handled by the accounts department, but by specially chosen teachers.

Graduation fees, it was disclosed, were collected by two teachers on the staff, with the major portion of the sum used to put on the graduation exercise and the remainder of $150,000 handed to the principal in installments of $50,000,

and $100,000.

Investigators also found that although money from the tuck shop is recorded daily on spreadsheets, "ad hoc amounts" were requested to the principal and delivered to her, usually by the bursar Marsha Dwyer, prior to lodgements being made to the school's bank account.

An additional lodgement was made directly to the principal's account, the preliminary report showed.

Dwyer, a ministry source said, is also expected to answer questions related to the school's accounts, and her own fitness to hold the job of bursar.

Day-to-day operations of the tuck shop, the use of government subsidy, administration of the breakfast programme and the absence of documentation related to it were also brought into question.

The selling of phone cards at the tuck shop as a personal enterprise for one of the school's employees assigned to it was also investigated.

There were also charges of abuse of the school's telephone and the use of cellular phones to make numerous calls that were deemed to be personal.

The school was also said to owe over $2 million in electricity bills.

The school paid all of the principal's telephone bills, and it was found that there was no separation of official calls from personal calls.

The investigators suggested that there should be a clear separation of business and personal calls, and also that there ought to be a revisit of the policy of paying the complete cellular phone bills for the principal, the last of which amounted to close to $35,000.

Investigators have also recommended to the school board that an audit be done "to determine the full extent of monies which have been removed prior to lodgements being made, their use and repayment."

The Sunday Observer had also received correspondence sent to the school board by a former teacher on the school's staff, in which he accused Irving of not delivering on an agreement.

Irving taught home economics at Manning's High School for several years before serving as principal of Bethel Primary and Junior High School in Hopewell, the feeder school of Hopewell High.

The school, whose motto is Pioneers for Excellence, has also had its share of disciplinary challenges, primarily involving unruly students, something that has not been resolved under Irving's rule, nor under the present administration led by Dunwell.

Hopewell High was thrown into controversy on July 26, 2010 when a man who sought full-time employment as a teacher on the school's staff, following a period of internship, was shot dead by a gunman, whom police said had gone there to attack Irving.

Irving had to lock herself inside her office and reinforce the door with furniture when the gunman came after her.

The deceased man, a young pastor, was shot while he attempted to telephone police about the incident.

A member of the school's staff was initially detained by police, but was later released after it could not be proven that he had anything to do with the incident.

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