Principal gets demotion offer after refusing to reopen school during Covid-19 peak

Heathfield High School principal Wesley Neumann faced disciplinary charges after refusing to open the school at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Heathfield High School principal Wesley Neumann faced disciplinary charges after refusing to open the school at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
PHOTO: Marecia Damons/GroundUp
  • A Cape Town principal was offered a demotion after he appealed the outcome of a disciplinary process.
  • It was found that he should be dismissed after he was found guilty of six counts of misconduct.
  • The misconduct centered around his failure to reopen his school during the Covid-19 peak.

The Western Cape Education Department (WCED) has offered an olive branch to a Cape Town school principal after he appealed a finding that he should be dismissed.

It offered him a demotion and transfer to another school.

Wesley Neumann, who was the principal of Heathfield High School, was found guilty of six misconduct charges that stemmed from his failure to reopen the school, as instructed, in June 2020 - the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Although Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga issued a last-minute instruction that only staff should return to school on 1 June 2020 because not all schools were ready to reopen, the WCED said its schools were ready and expected pupils in Grades 7 and 12 to be back in class by 1 June.

But Neumann allowed pupils to stay at home because parents were worried about surging cases at the time. It meant that matric pupils did not attend classes in person for three weeks.

Neumann issued a letter to parents, saying pupils must be back at school from 3 August. He also took to social media to criticise the government's policies, the WCED said.

In addition, Neumann was accused of being disrespectful to the previous head of the education department, Brian Schreuder.

Neumann faced the following charges:

  • Misconduct: Attempted assault or threatened assault of a pupil by allegedly smacking him in the face and pointing a finger at him.
  • Misconduct: A failure to carry out an instruction from the head of department by sending a letter to parents, saying pupils must be back at school from 3 August; ensuring Grade 12 teachers are teaching every day of the school week; and informing the school governing body (SGB) in writing of these instructions. He also had to tell the SGB that instructions or coercion to the contrary fell outside their functions of governance and oversight.
  • Misconduct: Displayed disrespect toward Schreuder in the workplace or demonstrated abusive or insolent behaviour towards him with remarks that included: "You resorted to pre-1994 methods of issuing instructions in baasskap manner, instead of engaging with the school."
  • Misconduct: Brought the department into disrepute by including "all media houses" in an email to Schreuder.
  • Misconduct: Misused his position in the department or his position as a representative on the SGB of Heathfield High School by inciting staff, pupils and the community via social media platforms not to attend school or report for duty during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • (Alternative to main charge) Misconduct: Distributed pictures, videos and commentary on Facebook, criticising government policies.

In October, a WCED disciplinary committee found Neumann guilty of all the charges.

The presiding officer decided that Neuman should be dismissed, but he was granted leave to appeal the outcome.

READ | Cape Town principal guilty of misconduct for refusing to open school during Covid-19 peak

As a matter of law, the appeal is decided by the Education MEC. 

In a document, Education MEC Debbie Schäfer said the MEC and WCED did not "in the usual course of events, publicly release the findings of internal employment appeals".

However, due to the publicity around the case, she had decided to release her findings.

In his appeal, Neumann argued that the presiding officer had shown bias. But Schäfer found that there was no basis for his argument.

Debbie Schafer
Former Western Cape Education MEC Debbie Schafer

She dismissed the appeal against the finding of guilt in respect of five of the six charges – all of them dealing with Neumann’s refusal to reopen the school.

However, she reversed the guilty charge for the allegation relating to the physical altercation with a pupil.

The presiding officer initially ruled that Neuman had slapped the pupil, but Schäfer acquitted him on appeal.

She found that although Neumann had engaged in a "public spat" with the pupil, there was not enough evidence to conclusively prove he had slapped the pupil.

"As he was, in either event, not dismissed on this charge by the presiding officer, this finding does not affect the outcome of this appeal on the question of sanction," she said,

In relation to the other five charges, which centered around Neumann's refusal to reopen the school, Schäfer found that "there was a sustained and ongoing campaign of challenging the employer's authority".

She said:

He was a vocal and highly active participant in a campaign to resist the reopening of schools. There can be no doubt that opponents of reopening would have been encouraged by the fact that an authority figure employed by the department was openly [siding] with them.

Schäfer also found that Neumann had shown a "lack of remorse" during the disciplinary proceedings and had "vilified his employer by way of a very public campaign".

"Neumann is young and seemingly talented, and clearly has prospects of serving a long and rewarding career in education if he simply confines himself to complying with the terms of his employment contract," said Schäfer.

She said the sanction of dismissal stands, unless Neumann is prepared to accept a demotion to a head of department position at one of three schools.

She said it was "untenable" for Neumann to continue in his role as principal.

READ MORE | Winde may overhaul depts, reshuffle entire A-team as Schäfer bows out

"However, he is afforded the opportunity to continue in employment in a lower post. As a matter of law, he must however agree to take up that demotion for that decision to be of effect," said Schäfer.

He was given until 20 May to accept one of the posts.

Neumann's lawyer, Vernon Seymour, said they would study the ruling. However, Seymour said there was a number of factors that would influence Neumann's decision beyond the ruling.

These include the appointment of a new head of department and Education MEC. 

David Maynier is set to take up the post as Education MEC from Sunday, following Schäfer's resignation.

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