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Graft-hit Machabeng College falls from grace

NICOLE TAU

Machabeng College, Lesotho’s only elite school and sixth-form college, has lost its accreditation and membership of the Council of International Schools (CIS) amid serious allegations of fraud and maladministration against its headmistress, Jannalee Schwimmer.

The CIS communicated its decision to withdraw Machabeng’s accreditation in November last year and membership was cancelled in December. The school only informed parents of scholars last month.

The CIS questioned the school’s governance structure and the board’s capacity, and expressed grave concern about the school’s failing financial situation and unresolved teachers’ grievances.

Schwimmer could not be reached for comment on allegations levelled against her, as she has been on leave in the United States since the beginning of the year. It is understood that this is because of flight restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Acting headmaster James Kamau, and Schwimmer’s personal assistant, Makotoane Mokhochane, refused to talk to MNN Centre for Investigative Journalism or give Schwimmer’s contact details.

“I’m sorry, I am not going to talk to you because I also have my sources that I keep close, like you keep yours … This is my personal line … It’s no, no, no,” Kamau said. He also failed to respond to questions that were emailed to him about two weeks ago.

Mokhochane also refused to speak to MNN, stating, “You have violated my rights. These are private numbers … What will I discuss with you? And how should I pass your questions to the headmistress? I am a very junior person, I can’t.”

According to the CIS website, award of the CIS accreditation  means the recipient school achieved high standards of professional performance in international education and has a commitment to continuous improvement. CIS accreditation also gives Machabeng students international recognition.

However, the new twist of events indicates that Machabeng flouted standards set by the CIS. The loss of accreditation and council membership has thrown the future of its over 500 students into doubt.

At a meeting of parents and teachers on March 12 this year, parents were not given clear answers on why the accreditation was withdrawn. They then formed an interim committee to investigate.

Parents’ findings

The investigation revealed that Machabeng accreditation has been hanging by a thread since an inquiry by a CIS accreditation team in 2019. The parents’ committee found that the CIS unearthed 10 issues to be addressed.

Borotho Matsoso, the former director-general of Lesotho’s Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences, who led the parents’ investigation, told MNN that Machabeng was given a probationary period in which Schwimmer was allowed to remedy the faults, as she was new in the job.

However, the committee also found that Schwimmer’s administration worsened the situation, as she “violated the school’s financial policy by overriding internal controls” and failed to have the school accounts audited for two consecutive years.

“Statutory audits …for institutions of this magnitude [are] a must and not a discretionary issue,” the committee emphasised.

According to the Principal Secretary for the Ministry of Education, Dr Dira Khama, the submission of audit reports to the government by the school is a condition for receiving government subvention funds.

The report found that the failure to conduct audits led to a chaotic cash flow and resource deficit.

“Before they give any organisation funds, it must first have the audit reports and since Machabeng has failed to do so for two years, it was possible that the subvention of M2-million was withheld for that reason,” he said.

The committee discovered that Machabeng had no budget and expenditure limits, leaving the door open “for fraud or corruption of the first order as a result of reckless spending”. More than M1-million was spent on projects that the board did not approve.

No procurement procedures were followed in delivering these projects, according to the committee findings. The findings show that M200 000 and more than M900 000 spent on two different projects “were beyond the approval level of the authorizing signatory for which no adverts or tendering procedures were followed”.

The first project, Matsoso said, was for a school structure. The second project, which shocked the parents, was the renovation of one of the teacher’s residential houses at a cost more than M900 000.

Matsoso told MNN that the renovations are not complete, as the project had not been budgeted for and the school ran out of funds.

The parents were upset by the board’s silence on these discrepancies.

The report says the board took no action on the project, “which was done without following proper procedures”.

It reveals that in their recommendations, the CIS investigators had also raised questions about governance and the capacity of the board of governors.

“Apparently, the board did not know anything about these projects,” Matsoso said. “When the headmistress was advised to consult on the matter, we are told she argued that she is the CEO of the school, hence all decisions were made by her.”

The committee also found there was “no proper training or orientation [for] the [board] members in order for them to take governance responsibility”.

Matsoso said Schwimmer was basically running a one-man-show, as if there was no board.

Before the accreditation and membership could be lost, the committee found that the CIS offered Machabeng two options: to have a virtual visit by the CIS or remain a member under a two-year evaluation.

“The [Machabeng] accreditation team advised the headmistress, board and the ministry to opt for the second option…instead, she [Schwimmer] wrote and dispatched a dossier to CIS deriding the school’s capability of revival to meet the CIS milestones,” said the report.

The parents felt Schwimmer misrepresented Machabeng to the CIS and have since recommended that school’s management should appeal against the misrepresentation.

Meanwhile, Machabeng accreditation with the      International Baccalaureate Programme, which collaborates with schools, governments, and international education and rigorous assessment programmes, is also hanging in balance and might be withdrawn if the situation does not improve.

Khama said Machabeng has been operating like a loose cannon.

“A lot of people even today do not know that the       government owns Machabeng. Likewise, Machabeng has been operating with a lot of independence. Because of that, nobody knew who the school was responsible to, so there was lack of accountability for years,” Khama said.

Under the Lesotho Education Act of 2010, the school is owned by the government, but it has the freedom to run its affairs independently, unlike state schools.

Government interference

On Friday 26 March, the parents convened a meeting to hear the findings of the interim committee’s investigations.

The MNN, which was present, observed that halfway through the meeting, the acting headmaster, James Khamau, approached Matsoso on the stage and whispered in his ear.

Immediately afterwards Matsoso announced that the Ministry of Education had given an instruction that the meeting should be called off.  However, Matsoso had already delivered his report.

“The parents wanted to know what happened. We had to give them their feedback. Why did they not want the meeting to go on…so that the parents are in the dark and fed whatever they [ministry] wanted?” Matsoso questioned.

Contacted for an explanation, the government’s schools supervisor, Motsamai Motsamai said the ministry did not order the meeting to be disbanded, but that “I kindly requested that the meeting should not go on”.

Motsamai argued that it was not proper for parents to go to school and meet teachers. The meeting should have been convened by the board in the presence of the headmaster and her deputy.

He acknowledged that the board itself had issues and had not been legally constituted as it was formed in accordance with Machabeng constitution, which is in direct conflict with section 23 of the Education Act 2010. The board comprised 13 members in line with the constitution while the Act prescribes nine members for school boards.

He agreed that it could not convene the meeting, but insisted the meeting “was still improper”. Motsamai said he told the deputy headmaster not to go ahead with the meeting until the “new board” decided on a way forward.

Matsoso disagreed, saying “parents deserved to know the truth”. He confirmed that Kamau told him the ministry had instructed a board member, Senate Molapo, to stop the meeting.

Matsamai told MNN that he had sent Kamau “a very clear message telling him that the meeting shouldn’t happen. He told me that there was nothing he could have done. This came as a surprise because he is the deputy headmaster; he could have even instructed the guards at the gate to put up a notice.”

“We are going to have another meeting with the parents next week, but I can’t talk about that now or what the loss of accreditation means for the school, since the matter is sensitive. I believe that things will be fine at Machabeng, as we are already working on addressing the matter,” Motsamai concluded.

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