AEU NT statement in response to ICAC investigation

The AEU NT welcomes the outcome of the ICAC investigation into a former Milingimbi School principal. We recommend all AEU members read this report and understand its implications.

The complaint that triggered this investigation was lodged with ICAC in September 2019. However, the AEU NT raised concerns about this principal’s conduct with the Department of Education (DoE) at least two years prior to the complaint being lodged with ICAC.

Serious concerns relating management of Milingimbi School were first brought to the attention of the AEU NT Branch in mid-2017, when two teachers and AEU members employed at the school contacted our office with numerous and detailed complaints about practices within the school. Our members’ allegations were provided in writing and detailed.

AEU senior officers provided these allegations to senior DoE officers in August 2017, who agreed to investigate them. An external investigator was appointed. He visited Milingimbi at least once and produced a report for the Department in November 2017, which, our officers subsequently learned, found that the allegations were not substantiated. This outcome was confirmed to the employees who had made the complaint via letter from a senior departmental officer in December 2017.

Our officers were not provided with a copy of this report. The principal continued in her role until the end of 2019.

Many of the concerns our members raised in 2017 are reflected in the ICAC investigation’s findings, such as the improper employment of family members, improper allocation of government employee housing to family members and falsification of student attendance records.

DoE senior officers were thus made aware in mid-2017 of numerous concerns regarding this Principal’s conduct, thanks to the intervention of the AEU NT and the courage of our members who made the allegations at considerable professional risk. These two teachers were ostracised within the school at the principal’s behest because she suspected they had contacted the AEU. Their continuing employment there in such a hostile environment was untenable.

Whether the allegations could be substantiated at the time or not, it is concerning that the principal was able to continue with practices that were later found to be corrupt by the ICAC Commissioner.

This raises important questions about the apparent lack of effective oversight of the school’s operations and expenditure, especially as the prior allegations that had already been levelled by the AEU NT – and investigated by DoE – meant senior DoE officers had good reason to monitor the principal’s conduct and budget expenditure closely.

We have been informed since the release of the ICAC report that the principal was able to evade budget oversight due to utilising funds from the school’s financial reserves over which the Department has limited visibility. This may mitigate departmental culpability somewhat, however it exposes a glaring hole in financial management practices within NT education, given that NT public schools collectively have well over $100m in school bank accounts.

The ICAC investigation report notes the risks inherent in the Department’s “global school budget” model introduced in 2015, which devolves significant autonomy to principals in the areas of finance and staffing. Our union has raised similar concerns since global budgets were first mooted.

Other concerns such as the ease with which student attendance records can be falsified have also been a recurring theme, particularly in remote schools, with the Department’s attendance-based funding model (known as “effective enrolment”) placing pressure on principals to increase student attendance to maintain current levels of school resourcing.

It goes without saying that the actions of one principal should not detract from the principal cohort. We know from direct experience of working closely with principals across our system, that they are overwhelmingly hard-working and ethical individuals who embody the best of the teaching profession.

Nonetheless this incident has exposed numerous structural weaknesses within the school governance framework and these need to be addressed.

It is thus imperative that the Department’s Chief Executive and the Minister for Education take these findings seriously and commit to improving management and budgetary processes to avoid a situation like this occurring again. We note the Chief Executive has already indicated in principle support for the ICAC Commissioner’s recommendations.

For media comment contact Branch Secretary Adam Lampe on (08) 8948 5399.