The principal of Brindabella Christian College has quit, the latest in a string of staff to leave the school this year as tensions between the school community and its board reach boiling point.
Principal Christine Lucas resigned on Monday just days after a petition signed by 169 people surfaced calling for greater transparency from the board over the private school's finances and operations.
The Canberra Times understands almost 20 staff have already quit this year, including a deputy principal and executive teacher. At least 37 students have moved schools in the past semester, and the college's main parents group has disbanded citing "board interference".
But the college said about 15 new arrivals were expected when term resumed on Monday.
Board chairman Greg Zwajgenberg acknowledged more staff and students had left than usual in the first half of the year but said the turnover was not excessive and some families were pulling out multiple kids at once.
The school, which is run by a private charity, had already interviewed 50 families for 2020 enrolments and continued to perform well academically, he said.
Concerns about governance have dogged Brindabella for the past four years, coming to a head in 2017 with the dramatic sacking of then principal Bruce Handley.
Dozens of parents and some current and former staff now allege the board's "heavy-handed" interference in the day-to-day running of the school has become untenable.
Brindabella's former chief operating officer Phil Mewett praised the school's staff but echoed concerns about the board's conduct. He said he was regularly pulling six-day weeks and trying to act as a go between for staff and the board when he left the college with a compensation payout in 2017.
"Everyone was so scared to ask the board for money, even what was in the budget," he said.
"I told the board they needed more staff...It's a beautiful school, the school staff are just wonderful, I'm very sad to not be there anymore but I can't stay silent on this."
It might be run by a business but its also a Christian school and in Canberra, everyone is in the public service, accountability is a big thing. It has to meet the market's expectations.Former Brindabella board member
A former board member, who asked not to be named, said his own concerns about accountability forced him to step down earlier this month.
"The school is fantastic but parents are tremendously concerned about the loss of a significant number of staff, including now their principal," he said.
"It might be run by a business but its also a Christian school and in Canberra, everyone is in the public service, accountability is a big thing. It has to meet the market's expectations."
Ms Lucas declined to comment. She is the fifth person to depart the top job since the long-serving Elizabeth Hutton left in 2015 following a dispute with the board, though three principals since were interim appointments.
Former staff, alumni and local religious leaders have also voiced "longstanding" concerns about the school's board. The petition called on board members to answer a list of questions posed by parents last month, but Mr Zwajgenberg said not all the information requested, including on the school's financial position, was typically disclosed.
"We're not a public company," he said. "Some questions will be answered, some won't be, but we will get back to them."
Unlike a public school or many other private school models, Brindabella is run by a private not-for-profit and its board made up of four company members.
Multiple parents said their efforts to join the company - and so the board - had been repeatedly rejected over the years. Mr Zwajgenberg stressed the board recruited based on skill set when required.
"There are a number of parent-controlled schools in the ACT. Brindabella is not one of them," he said.
Head of enrolments at Brindabella Cherie Hately said much of the angst at the school seemed to stem back to the board's recent bid to extend the college's hours by 30 minutes to match its year 11 and 12 classes.
"It wasn't handled overly well and they scrapped it because people said no," she said.
"But a lot of parents were scared by this campaign that started [against] the board. I've been at this school 25 years and I wouldn't stay here if I didn't think it was run right."
But multiple families rejected allegations of scaremongering, saying they were not ripping their children out of school lightly.
"None of us wanted this," a parent said.
"All parents want is transparency and to have a principal allowed to do their job."
One parent who spoke to the paper backed the board, adding questions around staffing and finances were not their business.
"It's a wonderful school, I like to stay out of the politics," she said.
"If the board is doing anything they shouldn't be doing, I like to think they're not and God will take care of that."
Andrew Wrigley at the ACT's Association of Independent Schools said that private schools had a range of different governance structures but they all had to fall under the requirements of the education act.
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