As the founder of a unique school (the Jon Carnegie School) for kids who are looking outside the mainstream for their educational needs, the past week has left a very bitter taste.

Seven years ago, my little school was thriving with 30 students who thought they had finally found their place in the education system, until out of nowhere, we were subjected to the most ridiculously, fastidious education audit imaginable.

Hidden cameras, spot checks, lawyers, accountants, the lot. In fact, the taxpayer resources put into the investigation would easily have outstripped our gross annual turnover.

It lasted four years and was carried out on the pretext that schools needed to become far more accountable to the government. Eventually the process cost us so much time and money we were forced to close our doors and then reopen as a non-funded private school.

We were accused of everything from fiscal mismanagement to managerial incompetence. We were made to pay back paid hundreds of thousands of government-allocated funding and turn away dozens of young people who were left with nowhere to turn but the very schools they had left in order to come to us.

Up until last week, I begrudgingly accepted the government’s story that even though we were providing education to kids who had turned their backs on the government system, there was simply not enough money to fund schools like JCS.  It now seems I could not have been further from the truth.

Reports published this week in relation to the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission’s investigations into the Education Department reveal millions of dollars have been misappropriated to stock the cellars of bureaucrats and send them and their families on business-class holidays around the world.

I  — and I suspect thousands of other passionate educators — have been dumbfounded given the laborious processes and standards to which we have to adhere when accounting for government-allocated spending.

While bureaucrats were being sacked for stocking their cellars with a few dozen bottles of Italian merlot, Education Minister James Merlino, who oversaw their sacking, was trying to explain how he could make promises to change the education system based on $853 million that had simply “disappeared” into a “black hole”.

Meanwhile, back on planet Earth at my little school, a single mum is sitting on the couch in my office in tears. The same department that just lost $853 million can’t find the funding to support her son, who has already been asked to leave seven schools in seven years.

The department wrote to her on letterhead proclaiming “Every Child; Every Chance”, explaining how tight funds are and that if she chooses to send her son to JCS (ironically the only school in Victoria that will even accept him), the government will also withdraw his basic funding because it does not formally recognise us as a school.

JCS, and the handful of other schools around the state that work with kids who aspire to an education outside the mainstream, face this dilemma every day. We see hundreds of parents who have spent years banging their heads against a bureaucratic brick wall designed to make the possible impossible.

Up until last week I just accepted that this is how the world worked. I believed the government when they said there was simply not enough money. But given the events of the past week it is impossible to continue to hold this belief.

Merlino has accused the previous government of lying about the whereabouts of $853 million. The opposition education spokesman has replied by saying it is the minister who is lying because he has no evidence of such a misappropriation. We just need the truth. Where is the money, and why isn’t it supporting schools and kids who need it?

There is an English saying that if you’re going to tell a lie, make it a big one. Well here’s a whopper.

We have discovered that a rogue bureaucrat used taxpayer dollars to stock his wine cellar … but we’re having a little trouble tracking down the $853 million we budgeted to improve your schools.

Given this is only week one of the IBAC investigation, it’s fair to say there are some nervous bureaucrats skulking around the halls of the Education Department wondering if they’ll have a job next week.

Mind you, I still suspect they will be better off than the thousands of kids with no corridors at all to skulk around because their schools were closed down.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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