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Education ministry probes financial irregularites at Old Harbour High

Published:Thursday | February 26, 2015 | 4:19 PMTameka Gordon
Ronald Thwaites

The Ministry of Education is probing financial irregularities at a government-run high school covering nearly $5 million.

The investigation comes against the backdrop of a recent push by the education ministry to streamline the accounting policies and practices in government-run schools, which has reportedly been met with staunch push back from bursars.

The matter surrounds the St Catherine-based Old Harbour High School, which installed a new bursar last September.

"We are confirming there are allegations of irregularity of funds and the ministry's auditors are currently investigating it. The bursar has been sent off on leave to facilitate the investigation," Byron Buckley, director of corporate communications at the education ministry, told The Gleaner.

When contacted, Principal Lynton Weir referred The Gleaner to the ministry for more details, but said the school was awaiting the auditor's report.

"There is not much I can tell you about the incident. The auditors have been doing their investigation and we have not received the audit report," Weir said.

overhauling accounting

Education Minister Ronald Thwaites told The Gleaner that both the Ministry of Finance and the education ministry are set on overhauling the accounting practices in schools, the advantage of which would be greater efficiency in managing school funds going forward.

"As you know, Government is imple-menting a central treasury management system and, of course, that will require all of the transactions to come through a single account," Thwaites said. "There are also new requirements under the public bodies accountancy-rules legislation passed last year, that would best be served by a single pattern of payment."

School bursars are in charge of the paying of teachers, managing the subventions forwarded by the education ministry, as well as the overall financial planning and implementation of the school funds under the guidance of the board of management and principals.

Over the years, several cases have been brought before the courts involving school authorities and the misappropriation of school funds.

The education ministry, however, said it could not provide data on the substantive sums as a result of the cases, but that the matter "has not been a big issue".

The finance ministry is developing a programme, which over time, will see the direct payment of teachers," said Thwaites of plans to tighten the reins.

"Doing this should streamline the operations of the school," Thwaites said, though adding the proposal was still under consideration by the state agencies and has not been formally put to the bursars.

"Many of the schools are still using manual systems of accounting and that's not the most efficient way any longer, and also remember that schools are now huge operations many of them are costing several hundred million dollars a year."

Therefore, having streamlined and centralised systems is very important, the head of the education ministry said.

Additionally, Thwaites said beginning this year, the statutory deductions are being taken at source for teachers "rather than being remitted by the schools who were receiving the gross amount".

"What we had found was (that) in many cases the schools weren't remitting the statutory deductions on time and using the money sometimes for other things. So all of these lead to a necessity for us to have better systems of governance," the minister said.