Stakes are high as shutdown looms for ‘innocent’ school

Stakes are high as shutdown looms for ‘innocent’ school

The Islamic School of Canberra is racing against time to avoid a disastrous shut down which threatens to displace hundreds of students and dozens of staff.

The school, located in Weston, will have its registration stripped and funding revoked by the ACT Government on April 8 if it cannot prove that it is financially viable.

Should the school close, its 216 students will have to relocate to government schools and about 30 staff will be left unemployed as of April 8, when the Federal Government’s deadline for a resolution passes.

The school is one of six Islamic schools operated by Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC), which has undergone changes following allegations of funding misuse and governance issues.

Last year, Amjad Mehboob, a former AFIC spokesman for Malek Fahd school, located in Sydney’s West, as well as the school’s former business manager, Agim Garana, were sacked in an attempt by the Federation’s president, Hafez Kassem, to clean up the school’s image.

However, the vice president of AFIC in the Australian Capital Territory, Mohammed Berjaoui, told The Educator that the Islamic School of Canberra is effectively being punished over past actions by the same individuals who have since been expelled from the Council.

“The people behind the financial mismanagement were expelled and there is no longer any issue with financial governance,” Berjaoui said, adding those same men were now trying to jeopardise the school’s pursuit of a review into the Federal Government’s funding cut.

“We are working hard to implement all of the requirements asked of us by the State and Commonwealth governments. The [expelled former AFIC members] are the ones hurting us by writing to the government and going to the media, accusing AFIC of things it is not doing,” he said.

“The government has to investigate every one of these allegations, and this is a waste of time and causing a major headache in the school community, because that chapter was closed long ago, and we’re getting on with the job of trying to provide a good education for the school’s students.”

At a heated special congress on March 6, tensions came to a head when several of the former AFIC members who had been expelled from the Council “hijacked” the meeting and appointed an interim committee – a move Berjaoui called “unconstitutional”.  

“We don’t recognise them as their actions were unconstitutional, so we are now challenging this in court,” he said.

“The way they conducted the meeting was completely inappropriate.”

Last week, AFIC’s lawyer, Rick Mitry, told The Educator that the group’s behaviour was “flabbergasting”, adding that it was unlikely to reflect well on AFIC at “a crucial time in which an application has been made for an internal review”.

Despite the turmoil, Berjaoui said AFIC was doing “it’s very best” to save the beleaguered school from closing down.

“The Federal Government is right to investigate these things. It’s the taxpayer’s money and they want it to be spent on education.”

Berjaoui added that AFIC and the school were innocent and “had nothing to hide” as the he continued to “cooperate fully with the Federal Government and every one of its requests”.

For the last 11 years, AFIC has provided roughly $600,000 annually to the school, which Berjaoui said spends all of its money on teacher and staff salaries, as well as bills.

Berjaoui said these expenditures leave no room for financial mismanagement.

To fill the funding void, Canberra’s Muslim community is now attempting to raise $1m over the next month to prevent the school from closing.

“AFIC gives the school full financial independence, so the community knows they can do their part by putting their hands in their pockets and financially helping the school,” Berjaoui said.

“They have to come up with money to help this school survive, but I’m not sure they will be able to do this. It’s a lot of money.”

Earlier this month, Mitry said that if a solution was not found before the April 8 deadline, the school may take its battle to restore Federal Government funding to the High Court.

“We will appeal to the High Court of Australia if [Federal Education Minister] Simon Birmingham tries to derogate from the school’s legislative rights to ask for an internal review of the decision,” he said.