Editorial Comment: Barring SDCs not the answer

Editorial Comment: Barring SDCs not the answer Primary and Secondary Education Minister Dr Lazarus Dokora

There is urgent need to put in place measures to protect school levies from thieving heads, clerks, bursars and school development association committee members.

Millions of dollars that should be invested in improving the education system have been stolen from school levy accounts over the past few years. A recent Government audit revealed that the rot was rampant, with schools across the board from disavantaged rural communities to more prosperous urban areas all falling prey to levy looting on a massive scale.

Primary and Secondary Education Minister Dr Lazarus Dokora has indicated that his ministry is researching on the best way to introduce a single, Government-controlled levy account for all schools. School development committees would then have no access to the funds, with schools required to apply to the Government whenever they need to pay for requirements.

While we appreciate the need to stop the looting of school development levies, barring school development committees from handling money is not the best approach.

This is most likely to simply add red tape to procedures without addressing the problem of theft.

The Auditor-General’s report indicated that even Government departments were not immune to theft. For example, last year there was a case involving hundreds of thousands allegedly siphoned from State coffers by finance ministry officials.

Making the money less easily accessible can only make daily transactions difficult for school authorities. For instance, if say a school experiences a mishap, like blocked toilet pipes and must wait for a long period to access funds for repairs, this complicates health standards.

It means pupils miss out on schooling time if the school must temporarily shut down.

In addition, a centralised account could be more complex and therefore more vulnerable to abuse by those in control. The complexities of untangling the transactions of each single institution out of thousands of schools would make concealing fradulent activities by thieves that much easier.

What the ministry should be looking at is why school levy accounts have become such easy prey. And the answer lies in the monitoring.

Until the nationwide audit was launched last year most schools had not received a visit from State auditors since before the introduction of the multicurrency regime. Schools engaged their own auditors who routinely gave them a clean bill of health which they then presented to the Government as a matter of form.

With no verification of the accounts prepared by the private auditors, those with access to school levy accounts soon realised that with a little creative accounting they could steal thousands with impunity. Every school development committee should operate in knowledge that at least one Government audit will be carried out during the financial year. Currently schools pay various amounts for private auditors. That money could instead be paid as a levy to the State to pay for the audits.

Last year there was an outcry from schools who felt that they were being charged double for the same service. But doing away with private auditors will ensure that the same standard is applied in all school audits.

In addition, there could be random spot checks throughout the year just to keep everyone on their toes. There could also be a hotline for whistleblowers to raise alarm quickly. In most cases someone is aware of fraudulent activities going on, but don’t know who to talk to. In some cases heads and school development association leaders use their influence to intimidate community members who would want to expose them.

There should also be compulsory financial literacy training for all school heads and school development committee members. Understanding accounting systems will help all those involved realise that money trails always exist and that exposure and prosecution are only a matter of when, not if.

The minister could also move to have a specific act to prosecute those who steal school levy funds because they are denying children the basic human right to education. The punishment should be severe, with restitution and jail terms mandatory instead of community service and other lenient sentences currently being imposed, which appear to embolden would-be fraudsters.

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