It's one of the fastest growing private schools in Canberra, the name you see plastered to the sides of buses and across two campuses in the city's north.
But, in recent years, Brindabella Christian College has also drawn attention for a string of dramatic staff departures - and that controversial letter urging families to vote no in the same-sex marriage survey.
Now WorkSafe ACT has confirmed it is looking into allegations of bullying and harassment against staff as dozens of people speak out on what they call a toxic culture of intimidation and control wielded by the college's board.
Following the shock resignation of principal Christine Lucas last month, a Canberra Times investigation has uncovered years of complaints and hundreds of thousands of dollars in workers compensation payouts centred on claims of heavy-handed interference by the board - which it denies.
Four new claims alleging workplace bullying have been approved for payouts in recent weeks while others have spoken of a serious toll on their health. Close to 30 staff have left the college this year, including a number of executive teachers and Ms Lucas - the third principal to depart citing "operational interference" in five years.
In that time, it is understood at least one independent review calling for the board's power to be checked has been buried, and staff and parents have now raised serious questions about the college's governance and financial viability.
The Canberra Times put an extensive list of questions to board members. Board chair Greg Zwajgenberg said he would respond on the board's behalf. He denied allegations of bullying and said a vocal minority spreading misinformation was now damaging a school on the rise.
"The board has gotten involved where things have been handled the wrong way," he said. "We've volunteered hours and hours of our time to the school, we've taken nothing from it, we've grown enrolments, and saved it from closing when we took it over from the Uniting Church in 2002. We will always protect the school."
But many past and present employees, including ex-principal Bruce Handley and former chief operating officer Phil Mewett, have described almost "cult-like" pressure exerted by the not-for-profit which governs the college through its closed board of four. While all praised the school's teachers and students, some spoke of board meetings stretching late into the night where senior staff were "interrogated" over the day-to-day operations of the school. Others described feeling watched, threatened or belittled, hounded over email and text after hours or cut out of key decisions.
This board "interference" - which some felt also reflected an apparent deepening of religion at Brindabella - ranged from hiring teachers and changing school timetables to forcing a recount in a 2012 student election for college captain.
Records from the Fair Work Commission released under Freedom of Information laws reveal at least seven cases have been brought against the college's parent company since 2010, including claims by former principals Liz Hutton and Mr Handley.
A spokeswoman said Worksafe ACT was now reviewing allegations of bullying and harassment against staff but had not issued any notices or orders to the college in the past five years.
Last month, longstanding tensions between the school board and its community boiled over into a 169-strong petition as Brindabella's main parent association disbanded due to threats of legal action. Ms Lucas, who has served as principal since 2018, resigned just days later.
Many who spoke to the paper described the moment as a dam bursting. "People are so scared to speak up, it's like a cult," one former staffer said. "But there's a sense now that they can't bully all of us."
"The way I've been treated, it's torn my life apart," said an employee. "This is not Christianity. My kids still get scared whenever we drive past the school."
Ms Hutton, Mr Handley and Mr Mewett are among a number of experienced staff to receive workers' compensation pay-outs for psychological injury on the job in recent years.
Mr Mewett said the stress forced him into retirement while Mr Handley said he and his wife had to sell their home and move out of the city to escape the sight of Brindabella ads rolling past on buses.
"The pressure was relentless," Mr Handley said. "Eventually, we just had to get out of town. All this money the board spend on lawyers to fight these claims, pushing insurance premiums up, it's all money that should be going to student education."
While the college says the former principal was let go after an external review and then delays during the college's registration process, Mr Handley believes he was targeted when he "started to push back".
"I wanted to be able to hire staff myself when I needed them, not wait weeks and weeks for the board to vet people," he said. "Some they sent me weren't right for the job. [Someone else] they wanted me to fire because they had publicly criticised the board. And I was refusing to do certain things I thought were educationally unsound."
That included stretching out kindergarten class sizes and banning the book Dracula, which was on the Australian curriculum, he said.
Mr Zwajgenberg denied the book had been banned but multiple staff and students said both Dracula and Jasper Jones were "blacklisted" at the college and raised further concerns about board members without teaching qualifications influencing the school's curriculum. There had even been a brief and unsuccessful bid to sink last year's musical production of The Little Mermaid over its portrayal of a sea witch, some said.
A former board member who recently resigned his position due to his concerns about its operations said meetings were often taken up by the day-to-day minutiae of running the school rather than the usual governance and financial matters.
"Even down to what time a bus should leave for camp," he said. "This is all stuff that should have been left to the principal...I asked for more members on the board, we can have up to 11 [in our constitution]. I asked for a clearer separation between the principal's role and the board's."
It is understood senior staff had also recently raised concerns with the board about the colleges's cashflow, which impacted on a payroll run in July.
But Mr Zwajgenberg said the college, which has invested $19 million in building two new state-of-the-art buildings over the past three years, remained viable. Brindabella's finances were audited regularly, including by the ACT government last year during its re-registration, and disclosed everything it had to, he said.
He rejected rumours that its second Charnwood campus, which the school leases from a Pentecostal church, was at risk of closure.
"We're actually looking to grow our early learning centres and finalise plans to expand to a third campus," he said.
Last month, facing down heated questions from teachers about board interference at a staff meeting, Mr Zwajgenberg said there were still things in the college which were "operationally incorrect" and an internal audit, including into its finances, was being carried out.
He told staff they were respected as "the lifeblood" of the college but said: "When it comes to teaching, there will be times when we get involved at a different level and there are different reasons for that."
He stressed the board would not be changing and while "people and boards make mistakes" overhauling its structure was not the answer. In a letter to families, he said the board was not aware of any bullying and did not routinely monitor staff emails.
The Canberra Times understands two serious complaints of bullying among staff made to the board this year have not been investigated. Instead, those involved were referred to Peacewise, a Christian mediation service requiring both parties to pay for their services.
Ms Hutton, who has signed a confidentiality agreement after reaching a settlement with the school, said she wanted to see the college thrive again and good governance was essential to the safety and health of its community.
Leanne Sheard, who left with a redundancy in 2015, said she had both experienced and witnessed aggression from some board members over her eight years working in the school's office.
"They treated those principals terribly," she said. "There was even a list circulating of loyal and disloyal staff, I saw it. It was like a hit list to target people they wanted out. Guess which one I was on?"
One long-serving staff member confirmed that the board arranged for her to be paid a full-time salary while working part-time hours last year as a "reward for my loyalty". But she stressed the decision, which she had not asked for, also came down to her ill health at the time and many hours of unpaid overtime.
[They've] created a culture of fear at the college.Cathy Prior, former Brindabella Christian College employee
Last month, some teachers were alarmed to find that an additional clause for employees to "be loyal to those in authority" was included in their staff expectations for 2020 but Mr Zwajgenberg said the board had no hand in writing this document.
While he acknowledged more teachers and students had left than usual this year, he said most people had moved on for family reasons and many were on maternity leave.
The college was hiring to replace them, he said, enrolments for 2020 were strong and existing "loyal and highly capable" staff had been reshuffled into leadership roles in the interim.
Local church minister Reverend Russell Smidt has supported dozens of staff and families affected by the turmoil at the college and said he would be withdrawing his own four children at the end of the year.
"It's not a culture that [seems] healthy from a Christian worldview, we're embarrassed by it," he said. "There's a lot of broken [people] trying to heal after attempting to challenge the behaviour of the board...I have little faith in the board's ability to fix this.
"If we're going to publicly debate on morality and ethics, we need to first get our own Christian houses in order, they must be places of integrity and compassion."
Graham Wright and April Witteveen are among more than a dozen parents also considering pulling their children out of the school as high teacher turnover starts to bite.
"I don't want the school to close, but I'm really worried," Mr Wright said. "My kids have lost teachers they loved, and friends who have left."
But head of enrolments at Brindabella Cherie Hately said some parents were feeling pressured to leave by what she called a small group determined to destroy the board.
"A lot of parents don't even know the board," she said. "And a lot of [directives] people are saying is coming from them isn't. If those parents cared about the school, they would walk away. I fear for the school but they won't destroy it. This is God's school."
While 40 students had left since the start of the year, she said three families had since changed their minds after sitting down to talk with Mr Zwajgenberg, whom she praised. She had sent her own four children and seven grandchildren to Brindabella and said she would not have stayed if she thought anyone was being treated unfairly. Another senior staff member also said the board had helped her when she had had issues with other staff or needed more support.
Kasey Jordan, who runs the parent association for Brindabella's Charnwood campus said he had always found the board accessible, transparent and helpful.
In an email sent in January, Mr Zwajgenberg warned staff that as a Christian school, Brindabella was under threat from outside attack but could also fall prey to the "cancers" of division and entitlement.
"It is the internal attacks that are far more dangerous whether delivered in gossip, internal undermining or a lack of respect for our leadership decisions, lowering your personal performance from the best you can be without cause or simply an intransigence to attempting change," he wrote.
"Experience teaches us that offering unrealistic resistance to change and seeking undeserved gains always ends up badly on both sides."
Cathy Prior, who resigned in 2017 shortly after Mr Handley left, said a lot of people had tried to fix things at the school over the years but backed off because of threats from the board.
"[They've] created a culture of fear at the college," she said.
Ms Prior worked alongside a parent (who was also a lawyer) to put together a detailed summary of concerns about the governance of the school to the Australian Not-for-profit and Charities Commission, urging it to investigate.
"They never contacted us or anyone we'd listed for them. It was extremely disappointing, we had spoken with so many broken people putting [it] together. We backed off when we became concerned the board was targeting people it thought gave information to us".
A spokesman for the commission said it was limited in what it could investigate and even more restricted by strict secrecy laws around disclosing investigations.
Last year, the school scraped through ACT government registration after extending its teaching hours for Year 11 and 12 students to match requirements.
After parents wrote to federal and ACT education ministers to raise fresh concerns last month, a government spokesman said the directorate was continuing to engage with Brindabella "to determine if a formal investigation is necessary to establish if the school is meeting all the conditions of its registration".
Multiple students and parents said they had seen teachers crying or shaking after encounters with some board members, two of whom they said were regularly on campus.
Recent graduate Ruby Larsen said the "constant presence" of some board representatives in the school cafe had long made students uncomfortable.
"My mum has worked at the school for years and she's had to go on blood pressure medication this year, she's been so stressed about what's happening," Ms Larsen said. "We almost didn't graduate because of the mess with our hours."
Multiple parents said their efforts to join the company - and so the board - had been repeatedly rejected over the years. But Mr Zwajgenberg stressed the board recruited based on skill set when required and did not operate under a parent-controlled model like many Christian schools.
School leadership expert Paul Kidson said Brindabella's structure appeared unusual, especially for a not-for-profit receiving millions of dollars in government funding.
"They're a private school but they're not a private company, transparency is important," he said. "If say, for example, government money or parent fees was being spent on workers' compensation, that would be concerning."
Mark Spencer at Christian Schools Australia, an association of which Brindabella is a paying member, said most Christian schools were overseen by parent representatives or the existing governance of a church.
Parents have also raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest in board decisions - with at least one government grant used to buy services from a company owned by Mr Zwajgenberg.
Last year, Brindabella was awarded $25,000 in ACT government funding to create a solar-powered "tree" installation in order to teach students about energy use. The school is buying the tree from EVT, a company owned by Mr Zwajgenberg, which he said would build and deliver the tree as a prototype then patent and commercialise it. No additional cost would be borne by the school and there was nothing untoward about the arrangement, he said.
Geoffrey Rutledge, deputy director general of the ACT environment directorate, said the government had not known about Mr Zwajgenberg's connection to the company nor plans to commercialise the tree when it awarded the school the grant.
"That doesn't look good, but it's more an issue for the school," he said. "Our conflict of interest rules can't be too strong when handing out these kinds of grants to not-for-profits because sometimes they might need to bring in a related company. And these grants have gone on to be commercialised before. We will take a closer look when they deliver the solar tree, but it's a really exciting idea and we're still looking forward to seeing it."
Accountant Ted Sherwood reviews Christian charities and said, in his opinion, Brindabella was reporting its finances incorrectly, with less disclosed for 2018 than the previous year.
"There's an urgent need for up-to-date information on their financial condition," he said.
But Mr Zwajgenberg has moved to hose down concerns about the school's finances, telling families all its statements were audited. He said the college had about $1 million in debt due back this year and cash flow would "continue to improve" once infrastructure projects wrapped up.
The Canberra Times has confirmed that Brindabella also has two loans for the buildings totalling $12.75 million alongside a sizeable fee debt ratio of more than $12,000 per student.
"We're never sure what time we'll be paid now," one staff member said. "It just doesn't feel safe to stay. Literally unsafe. My doctor says under that stress I'll have a stroke."
The school said all staff had been paid and would continue to be paid, putting the delay in one particular pay run down to "incorrect amounts based upon incorrect leave or time sheets not being completed" rather than a lack of cash reserves.
"The truth will come out on this," Mr Zwajgenberg said. "I'm trying to keep the school settled, the staff settled. We have a wonderful school."
But families and staff have rejected suggestions of a conspiracy to bring down the board. Some said they had been told by a board member they could leave the school if they didn't like how it was run while others said they had been targeted by false accusations after speaking up.
"The school has lost so many great staff and families," the former board member said.
"It's the board that should set the culture and environment that make people want to stay.
"People aren't conspiring, they're grieving."
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