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More worries for Hanover school

Preliminary findings uproot irregularities in Hopewell High probe

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

Sunday, March 30, 2014    

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OFFICIALS of the Ministry of Education and members of the Hopewell High School's Board of Governors are closer to finalising their investigation into alleged incidents of corruption and malpractice at the Hanover-based institution, education ministry sources have told the Jamaica Observer.

The Ministry of Education suspended the school's only principal in its seven-year history, Joyce Irving, at the start of the Easter term in January, after she opted to ignore a school board request for her to step aside while a probe into the running of the school was ongoing.

Education ministry spokesman Byron Buckley told the Sunday Observer by e-mail recently that investigations were "wrapping up and the board should review the findings next week, then convene a meeting with the personnel committee".

Education officer Leonie Dunwell has been in charge of the school, based on the outskirts of the bustling East Hanover town of Hopewell, since January 6.

Among the moves made is the removal from the board of its vice- chairman, who is said to be the sister-in-law of the suspended principal and a member of the Personnel Committee. Her position on the board, officials said, amounts to a conflict of interest, as her signature appears on some of the vouchers being examined.

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 — were mandated by board chairman Hervin Stennette, on November 19, 2013, to enquire into several concerns of irregular activities. They have since submitted their findings to the board.

Among the concerns was that graduation fees were not handled by the accounts department, but by specially chosen teachers.

The two-member team's mandate also included the examination of the operations of the tuck shop regarding its income and expenditure; determining how the government's subsidy was spent and how much of the annual allocation was left behind; looking into the operations of the breakfast programme and address claims that there was no proper documentation regarding the use of money; and find out if there is any truth behind the allegation that phone cards were being sold at the tuck shop as a personal enterprise for one of the school's employees assigned to that area.

Also, the team was charged to investigate whether or not the school has an outstanding electricity bill of over $2 million, which it is finding great difficulty in settling; and to also find out if all telephone calls made from the school, or with some cellular phones, were all being paid for by the school, even though several of them were determined to be personal calls.

Among the conclusions so far is that graduation collection was done 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 instalments 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.

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

Investigators have 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."

As far as the education ministry's subsidy goes, the report said that $5,669,500 was received last August, of which the majority of the funds are "properly accounted for".

But those who conducted the probe said in relation to the subsidy that "some unnecessary sums expended were (to caterers) plus $1,000,000 (was used) to purchase supplies for the tuck shop".

In addition, it was revealed that the school's cash book was not up to date and there was full utilisation of the funds, which resulted in nothing being available for the purchase of additional teaching material, which the investigators said resulted in students and teachers being short-changed.

It was also disclosed that breakfast payments were not being properly recorded on a daily basis and the money was not being given to the bursar in a timely fashion. They recommended that a daily collection sheet ought to be set up for the canteen and tuck shop.

Electricity bills are paid from cost-sharing allocations and tuck shop revenues.

Regarding the exorbitant telephone bills, it was revealed that 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.

The matter of cellular phone card sales has not yet been investigated, the Sunday Observer understands, and those doing the probe have asked for further clarity from personnel close to the day-to-day running of the institution.

An investigation of a different kind, too, may be launched into the academic background and qualification of bursar Marsha Dwyer by board officials, as it has been mooted that she does not meet the required academic standard for one holding that job.

The education ministry official said that the regional office (Region Four) based in Montego Bay, which was headed by Dunwell before she was assigned to run the school upon Irving's suspension, could be asked to look into that matter and present the findings at an early date.

"We would love to find out if what we are hearing about the bursar's appointment is true, and if so, how she came to be appointed without the requisite qualification in the first place," an education ministry source told the Sunday Observer.

"It seems as if it's a free-for-all at that school. There is a serious breakdown in the institution's discipline, both by students and academic staff, and that cannot continue," the official said.

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