Islamic School of Canberra scrambles to find $1.5 million in funding
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Islamic School of Canberra scrambles to find $1.5 million in funding

With less than a month left until its Commonwealth funding dries up, the Australia Federation of Islamic Councils has cut ties with the Islamic School of Canberra as another school agitates for its students.

The school has about two weeks to find $1.5 million to continue running after it moved to distance itself from the embattled federation, which operates six Islamic schools across the country.

The Islamic School of Canberra's federal funding ran out on July 1.

The Islamic School of Canberra's federal funding ran out on July 1.Credit:Jay Cronan

An investigation into the AFIC-run schools found significant issues with independence, governance and financial management.

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham said the Islamic School of Canberra had failed to address these issues satisfactorily and as a result, revoked more than $1 million in Commonwealth funding, putting the future of more than 200 students in doubt.

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The school's business manager, Mohammed Berjaoui, vowed to appeal the funding cut.

The school's business manager, Mohammed Berjaoui, vowed to appeal the funding cut. Credit:Jay Cronan

The school's business manager, Islamic Council of Canberra chairman Mohammed Berjaoui, said AFIC's board of directors – including himself – resolved to amend the school's constitution to secede control of the school's finances to the school board on March 5.

But the motion was rescinded the following day, after the executive committee was dissolved and an interim committee instated in its place – an action which they are challenging in court.

"The old guards said the schools should stay with AFIC, the government cannot impose on us anything, it's our school, we built this school, the government has no right to tell us who we should have on the board or to change the constitution," he said.

"Still they don't get it. Things change. You failed. You failed the community, you failed the parents, you failed the students. Your mismanagement in these schools caused the governments to do this auditing so move on and let us do these changes. They did not like it."

However, the new constitutions were lodged with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, despite a letter to principals from the new committee urging them to delay.

Now the school will push forward without the financial backing of the federation, despite owing AFIC a debt of $2.1 million, according to the Commonwealth.

This debt relates to a surplus of running costs over the past three years which AFIC had absorbed and written off in prior years.

But despite the current situation, Mr Berjaoui said he was confident the federation would write off the debt.

ACT education minister Shane Rattenbury has given the school about two weeks to prove it is financially viable in order to keep its registration until the end of the year.

In a letter to Mr Berjaoui and the school's principal Susan Christiansen, Mr Rattenbury said while it was his preference that the school remain open in the long term, he was also legally responsible for ensuring it was able to meet its operating costs.

The school is also recruiting a new board which will be selected by an independent panel, Mr Berjaoui said.

Meanwhile another Canberra Islamic school appears poised to make a move on the beleaguered school.

Mr Berjaoui said representatives from the Taqwa School crashed a meeting of about 150 parents and stakeholders at the Islamic School of Canberra on Thursday night to "interfere" with discussions about its future.

"They tried to bully people, they said 'the only way is you give it to us, don't listen to AFIC, don't listen to anyone, we'll talk to the minister, we'll help you but we have to be in control'. People who know them know they have an agenda," he said.

The Taqwa School, located in Spence, is in its second year of operation and hosts 65 students from kindergarten to year four.

But founding chair of the Taqwa School board, Hassan Warso vehemently denies they went to the meeting intent on a takeover.

He said they were invited and attended to "assist in any shape or form".

"We went to save the school from closing in line with what the community wants," Mr Warso said.

"We have no intention of taking over, only if it works out that way for the good of the community. Our only intention when we went to the meeting is we want the school to belong to the community. We are Robin Hood. We want to save the school."

Mr Warso said he was "not well placed" to outline their strategy on assisting the other school.

"We hope to find a solution. We will talk to AFIC about how to transition the school to the community," he said.

Mr Rattenbury said he had not had any discussions with the Taqwa School regarding the closure of the Islamic School of Canberra.

Andrew Wrigley, executive director of the Association of Independent Schools of the ACT, said the Islamic School of Canberra may need to reinvent its funding structure in order to survive.

"The Islamic School of Canberra is a very low fee school, responsive to the needs of its community, and would need to develop a business model which would sustain the work of the school to its students," Mr Wrigley said.

"It would be difficult for any school to operate without Commonwealth funding, and the school will seek a review of the Commonwealth's decision."

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.