Thwaites stands by St James High principal - Education minister hangs school's future on Williams despite damning report
Despite a damning 2014 report into the leadership, management and operations of the St James High School by the Ministry of Education, where school principal Joseph Williams was cited as being in breach of Government of Jamaica regulations, Education Minister Ronnie Thwaites is maintaining hope that Williams is the best person for the job of leading the school's revival.
The education ministry's 96-page inquiry report listed numerous irregularities at the institution, not least of which was the low rate of participation and success of its students at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) mathematics and English exams.
But it was Williams' poor management and working relationship with members of staff which were fingered as the reasons for a "poor school climate".
Nevertheless, Thwaites has come to the defence of Williams, who he said was the victim of a smear campaign.
"There is a concerted campaign to discredit Mr Williams and some other people at St James High by those who think they are serving the best interest of the school, but I am fully aware of what is going on down there," said Thwaites when quizzed about what action had been taken by the ministry since the damning report was produced almost a year ago.
"It is completely untrue to say no action has been taken. A new board has been appointed and the matters mentioned in the report have been carefully enquired into and a long process of discernment undertaken, which has led to certain changes introduced and others are under way," Thwaites said.
Among the report's recommendations, however, was an explicit call for the board to "commission a forensic audit into the financial affairs of the institution and immediately discipline the principal (Williams)".
The report, which was authored by senior ministry officials over a four-month period, through the review of correspondence between school personnel, as well as formal interviews with staff and board members of the institution, was caustic in its criticism of Williams' leadership of the school.
The document stated that Williams, who has been principal of the institution since 2006, had fostered a poor relationship with members of staff, including the school's bursar, which had been steadily deteriorating for many years and was now "irreparable".
The report stated that Williams practised 'vindictive and dictatorial leadership' where he consistently used expletives and derogatory language to staff, as well as illegally refused to sign salary cheques to intimidate and punish those with whom he had disagreements.
It went on to state: "We hereby confirm and conclude that strained relationships among school personnel have not only contributed to a poor school climate but have significantly eroded the institution's capacity to be effective. We conclude that concerns expressed about the quality and management are valid and posit that such leadership amounts to improper conduct; lack of discipline; and such other conduct as may amount to professional misconduct."
It also slammed Williams' financial management of the school, arguing that the principal was involved in 'questionable practices' regarding funds that were raised by the school particularly in its canteen. These, it said, represented a major breach of the Financial Administration and Audit Act, for which "the principal should be held fully accountable".
But the most pressing concern raised by the report was the poor performance of the students of the school in external exams. The report stated that between 2010- 2012 less than 15 per cent of the students who were a part of the grade-11 cohort sat the CSEC math exam.
Only nine students passed the exam in 2012, a marginal improvement over the three who received a pass mark the previous the year.
It was no better for CSEC English, as in 2012 only 150 of the 433 eligible students sat the exam from the school, and only 39 of them received a passing grade.
The ministry's report stated that, "The general performance of the school, specifically as it relates to academic, financial and administrative matters, is less than satisfactory."
While cognizant of the school's failings cited in the education ministry's report, Thwaites was unwavering in his assessment that the woes of the school should not all be placed on Williams' shoulders.
"St James High has many structural problems. It is overcrowded and under-resourced as far as infrastructure is concerned. None of that excuses the limited performance, but they are factors," argued Thwaites.
"It's a difficult school with far too many young people going there in ordinary circumstances, but I'm anxious that the resolute but fragile process of recovery should not be prejudiced by any impatient comments at this time."
Attempts to reach Williams were unsuccessful as The Sunday Gleaner was told that he is currently on vacation leave.