Forget the 16-strong battle for Werriwa in the western suburbs of sin city, people power has come to in Sydney’s ritzy Eastern Suburbs. It has triumphed and forced a reversal of plans to return Mrs Rowena Danziger to the exclusive Sydney girls school, Ascham.

The announcement, posted on the school’s website on Monday morning, came as up to 700 parents were preparing to meet tonight at the University of NSW in Sydney’s east to discuss the decision to bring Mrs Danziger back after the surprise departure last month of headmistress for a year, Miss Susan Preedy.

The news of her departure and the return of Mrs Danziger, who’s close to the Packer family, has dominated dinner parties, emails and coffee in the Eastern Suburbs for the past fortnight. Organising groups, sniping, strong letters and booing and hissing and catcalls have been some of the manifestations of the so-called Ascham Succession. Friends from the school have split between the concerned parents group and the so-called Old Guard, who supported the school council in this acrimonious affair.

Mrs Danziger’s return as “interim headmistress” was made necessary according to the school’s board by the decision of her successor Miss Susan Preedy to leave after requesting a long period of sick leave in the early months of this year. In her letter posted today school chairman, Justice Margaret Stone of the Federal Court denied that Miss Preedy had been forced out by pressure.

“Any suggestion Ms Preedy was dismissed or pressured to leave is utterly without foundation”.

“She was clear that she did not want to remain as headmistress following the announcement to be made on February 25.”

Ms Stone said that the SMH learned of the decision and sought to publish.

“Whilst we were able to have the newspaper agree not to publish the story until the day of the official announcement, it would not agree to delay it any further”.

Mrs Danziger said in her one page statement that she had “decided therefore to withdraw from the role of Interim headmistress.”

“I am puzzled by the fact that what was on my part just a readiness to help with the administration work to be done, on a short term basis, and in an unexpected emergency, is seen by some parents as a return to the past.”

Mrs Danziger was head of the school for 31 years before retiring at the end of 2004. She is a notable public figure in Sydney’s East, especially with her long links to the Packer family. She is a director of PBL. Gretel Packer is an old girl of Ascham.

Mrs Danziger said she fully supported the changes that have been made in 2004 by Miss Preedy. The possibility of those changes being unwound or watered down seems to have been the driving force behind much of the opposition from the Concerned Parents of Ascham group, which split the school into the old guard and the newer parents.

The deputy headmistress, Mrs Booth will be appointed acting headmistress, after Ms Stone had said in an interview on ABC radio on February 24 that it was felt that Ms Booth was not experienced enough to take up the reins immediately. Ms Booth’s appointment is expected to be finalised within a week.

Now she is and both Ms Stone and the Lady Laura Reid, the President of the Ascham Parents’ Association, and a leading member of the Old Guard, said in their statements that governance and transparency issues raised by the other parents in their objections, would now be looked at.

That will be a bit of a shock to a board that has gone its own way. Besides Ms Stone, it contains the head of the Institute of chartered Accountants, Stephen Harrison, the former Merrills investment banker, Tim Burroughs and the leading company director, Diane Grady (Woolworths). They should all be used to the need for greater transparency and disclosure and improved governance, shouldn’t they?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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