Bendigo South East College

THE resignation of Bendigo South East College principal Ernie Fleming has deteriorated into a slanging match about the Department of Education and Training’s investigative process and the Speak Up program through which complaints about Mr Fleming’s leadership were first taken up.

The Bendigo Weekly understands Mr Fleming will not pursue legal action, but will agitate for changes that also support principals when complaints are investigated.

For the first time on Wednesday DET defended the 18-month investigation that Mr Fleming and his Shepparton-based lawyer David Schier have vehemently criticised since announcing the former’s resignation last Sunday.

The department, speaking through an unnamed spokesperson, queried the timing of Mr Fleming’s resignation and assertions by Mr Schier that it was unrelated to the investigation’s findings.

Mr Schier said Mr Fleming resigned because he made the decision he would not receive natural justice in the process.

The department spokesperson confirmed the investigation “looked at a range of issues at the school including conflicts of interest and financial management”.

“Mr Fleming was recently made aware of the report’s adverse finding and the proposal to remove him from his post, and he subsequently submitted his resignation prior to the final decision being made,” the spokesperson said.

The department said attacks on the investigation were disappointing because Mr Fleming’s representatives knew that under privacy provisions that protected the former principal, the department was unable to respond.

Mr Schier said Mr Fleming was also in a position of not being able to defend himself because he was denied access to documentation and subject to confidentiality controls.

That changed when Mr Fleming resigned.

DET will not confirm whether it will release the report containing the findings.

But Mr Schier said the department conducted “an exhaustive forensic audit of the college accounts and did not find one dollar unaccounted for in $75m of expenditure at BSE on education facilities, programs, staff and contractors over five years”.

Further, Mr Schier accused the department of making up “its own rules as it went along aimed at suiting its position to the detriment of Mr Fleming”.

“The term kangaroo court was coined a long time ago to describe such a process as we have witnessed in this case,” he said.

The department spokesperson said DET was committed to ensuring integrity “is at the heart of everything we do”.

Supporters of Mr Fleming’s have called for the release of the investigation report and findings “so that the school community, parents and friends, and for the public interest, can be informed of why this occurred, what were the allegations and what has been substantiated”.

“Otherwise all it will reveal is that it’s been a good old DET political stitch-up to solve staff complaint issues,” supporter Laurie Whelan said.

The fall out at the college, which is the biggest in Bendigo with enrolments increasing to more than 1500 in the past decade, is also a matter of contention.

Announcing events to the students and parents, school council president Sue Masters said the department always sought to ensure fairness and due process were maintained in the course of its investigation process.

“In the interim and until the position of principal can be filled, Julie Robertson will continue to act as principal, a role in which she has been excelling since she joined the school,” she said.

But the Bendigo Weekly understands that many teachers feel demoralised by events and believe the school has suffered while Mr Fleming has been absent and unable to maintain teaching and behaviour models he put in place after the release of the Bendigo Education Plan.

– Sharon Kemp