Education’s legal woes could hurt kids

2014-01-14 00:00

KWAZULU-NATAL’S cash-strapped provincial Education Department is facing a legal battle that could threaten operations as schools reopen tomorrow.

A court sheriff has attached more than 700 vehicles owned by the department after it failed to pay R36 million in bursaries to the Sants Private Higher Education Institution. The outstanding money was meant to be paid to fund the tuition of more than 1 000 student teachers.

Teacher unions now warn the department’s latest financial mishap could prove disastrous. Last year the department announced that it was forced to take money from its own infrastructure budget to pay hundreds of millions owed to teachers.

Yesterday, the spokesperson for the National and Professional Teachers’ Association of South Africa (Naptosa), Anthony Pierce, warned that the auctioning of the department’s vehicles could cripple operations.

He said subject advisers could be affected the most and it was critical that they were able to get around to schools.

“The department has again run short of money. Last year the department went public and said they didn’t have money to pay for a number of projects,” he said.

Pierce believes that this new setback will mean there will be serious budget cuts and said the premier of KZN, who was the MEC for Education, Senzo Mchunu, should answer.

Allen Thompson of the National Teachers’ Union (Natu) called for an investigation and for anyone found guilty of not honouring the court order to be brought to book.

Thompson said the fact that the department had been spending a lot of money on litigation matters was not helping.

He said the union was very disappointed.

“These cars are badly needed to reach schools, to co-ordinate delivery, to transport important documents to schools and districts,” he added.

But Education MEC Peggy Nkonyeni’s spokesperson, Bhekisisa Mncube, said the department was not panicking.

“All the cars are still with the department … if they are attached then the department would come to a standstill, but it won’t come to that.

“We’re not worried and not panicking. There’s nothing to panic about,” said Mncube.

Sants is meeting with the students and their parents today to discuss the matter.

The Pietermaritzburg high court ruled on November 26 that the department was responsible for paying the tuition fees, Sants’ managing director Jaco Bernard said.

In October 2012 the department identified 1 260 students to study at Sants. The first payment of the total bursary amount of R30 million was due in January 2013.

The department has allegedly been sending text messages to students to warn them to communicate with Sants only in the presence of a department official. It has allegedly been threatening not to give them their bursaries should they continue studying at Sants.

Sants offers a four-year bachelor of education qualification for the foundation and intermediate educational phases at nine centres in KwaZulu-Natal.

The department’s spokesperson Muzi Mahlambi said they are still studying the order and will respond accordingly.

The department has until February 10 to appeal or else the vehicles will go under the hammer.

The IFP’s shadow minister for education Mntomuhle Khawula said field workers will be unable to work “because of someone’s incompetency”.

“We’ve long been communicating about poor management in KZN and in the country. This is going to affect the parents, community and mostly the children,” he added.

Meanwhile, Sants students said there were in the dark.

A 23-year-old student from Empangeni, who wanted to remain anonymous, said she was supposed to do her second year in 2014.

She said they had a meeting with department officials on Friday.

“The officials told us that they were not pulling a plug on us but they say we must go to other public universities in the province. But there is a possibility that they’ll start us in the first year,” she said.

Another student from eJozini campus, said there is nothing they can do if the department wants to move them. “We had good tutors and we’re sad to leave that behind.”

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