The principal asked: ‘Why have you stopped talking to me?’
And the reply: ‘I don’t know what you have done.’
And there is the terrible Kafkan truth of it:
The principal had done something, that was now a given; that it was something pretty wrong, was also a given; how serious that wrong was, no one could be sure; but it must have been something serious or why was she suspended? And there was that thing about financial mismanagement on TVNZ and no clarification or denial, all very dodgy.
That was the situation of helpless horror a New Zealand woman – a distinguished professional woman, a wife, mother, and grandmother – lived in for months. Guilty of something unnamed, largely bereft of support, and unable to respond. Things have picked up a bit for her, but they are still dire.
And that is how the ministry of education works today to impose itself on state schools.
Ladies and gentlemen we have a rogue ministry on our hands.
What is to follow a little later will horrify you, but if you want to skim over what follows immediately, that is, of course, your prerogative. As a writer, though, for my own understanding, I need to put what has happened into context – a context, as it happens, well documented in dystopian political history and philosophy.
The context is important because I have been involved in a number of similar cases; this is by no means a one off, every case is different but there is a pattern, and it is a pattern occurring with disturbing regularity in state education – occurring to create an atmosphere of fear as an instrument of control.
The Castle by Kafka acts as a secular bible for me; the final paragraph has the innocent Josef K. being made to die – to die, as one of the participants observed, ‘Like a dog! … It was as if the shame would outlive him.’ [The version referred to is Penguin Modern Classics, 2015.] In New Zealand, dozens of principals, just as innocent in behaviour, have their vocations made to die, ‘Like a dog!’ with the shame to outlive them. And the principal of Rangiora High School is on the brink of just such a vocational death.
The first sentence in The Trial begins with: ‘Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K. for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.’
This posting could well begin with: ‘Somebody must have made a false accusation against a New Zealand principal for she was threatened one day with a series of wrongdoing when she had done nothing wrong’ … indeed, was a brilliant principal, highly respected, and could be seen to have done a power of good.
It is an understanding of this posting that organisations should be viewed as having minds, and in having these, the ability to develop organisational narratives on matters large and the small, sometimes to devastating effect on individual rights and freedoms. It is the organisational mind that allows the education bureaucracies to act with such singularity and cruelty, enabling individuals to do terrible things in the name of the organisation they wouldn’t otherwise contemplate as individuals.
I know a long quote tempts the reader to skip over, but I earnestly request you read the following paragraph quoted unchanged from The Trial, first published in 1925. The questions I place in your mind as you read: Is this not an exact description of how the ministry works today? and, if so, what are we to do about it?
Josef K. is advised that (p. 96):
The only right thing to do was to come to terms with circumstances as they were. Even if it were possible to rectify certain details – but that was just a senseless delusion – the best one could hope for would be to achieve something for the benefit of future cases, but that would be at the expense of doing oneself immeasurable harm through attracting the particular attention of a bureaucracy which was always vengeful. Just never attract attention! One had to keep quiet, even when this went against the grain! And try to see that this great legal organism was always in a state of equilibrium, so to speak, and that anyone who independently made an alteration in his own area would be cutting the ground from under his feet and could come coming crashing down, while the great organism itself compensated for a slight disturbance by easily producing a replacement at another point – everything was after all connected – and remained unchanged, assuming it did not become (and his was probable) even more secretive, even more observant, even more severe, even more malevolent.
The following quote is one of my all-time favourites:
‘That still needs a bit of work,’ answered the court painter, and he took a pastel from a side-table and sketched with it round the edges of the figure, but K. found it no clearer. ‘It’s Justice,’ said the painter at last. ‘Ah, now I recognise it,’ said K., ‘here’s the bandage over the eyes and these are the scales. But aren’t these wings on the ankles and isn’t that a figure running?’ ‘Yes’, said the painter,’ I was commissioned to paint like that. Actually it is Justice and the goddess of Victory in one.’ That’s hardly a good combination,’ said K. with a smile. ‘Justice has to be motionless or the scales will waver and there’s no possibility of a correct judgement.’ ‘I’m only following the instructions of the person who commissioned me,’ said the painter.
On the 19 February, the principal of Rangiora High School received a redacted copy of the Specialist Adviser’s report and was told her relationship with the board was ended. She received a report (which is twaddle as described in Part 1), heavily redacted, and then was told you are separated from your board, forbidden to speak to anyone on it.
This was unlawful.
On 25 February, the principal left for a conference in Philadelphia to deliver a paper on her doctorate research into bi-cultural leadership; an occurrence which was fully approved by the board. The Specialist Adviser deceptively said the travel didn’t have approval and let that be known publicly to become a festering issue against the principal.
Before she left the principal told her staff, the board had been dissolved; on 26 February the board was dissolved and the Specialist Adviser arrived as commissioner. As described in Part 1, the report the commissioner had written as Specialist Adviser was the basis for both her promotion to commissioner and the dissolution of the board.
First, the report was farcically short of justifying a commissioner; second, there is a blindingly obvious conflict of interest involved, making her appointment amongst other things, unlawful (no Hekia, it is no use saying you had other matters back at the office to pin on the school and principal, all that caveat issue won’t wash, the school was acting on provided legal advice, and the rest is tittle-tattle, whatever it is – bringing in a commissioner is not a cup of coffee before the day starts Hekia; ever thought there were people at the end of your charming decision-making – and laws and regulations to provide some protection against that flow of milk of human kindness?); but that significant transgression dwindles to the microscopic when compared with the lack of due process in the dismissing with a snap of your fingers a legally appointed board.
A whole lot of unlawfulness going on here Hekia and that makes everything that follows unlawful, meaning you have a whole lot of restoration to do, a whole lot of compensation to undertake and, possibly, a whole lot of resigning to do as well.
So don’t think you can dig around for some contingency to stick to the principal – the situation was unlawful from the start. Unwind it Hekia and pronto – it’s your best course of action.
Not your style – well, listen up there is more to come, much more.
Before I proceed any further could I mention a bit of legislation you might not be particularly familiar with – it is called the Employment Relations Act and rules out things like hitting employees and swearing at them like a trooper (even if they fully deserve it – the bumbling idiots); this Act in Section 4 (and excuse me if I paraphrase because I know you will be as bored with it as I am) goes on to say that the relationship (between you and those bumbling idiots referred to) must be in good faith, and whether directly or indirectly must do nothing likely to mislead or deceive each other (that is you and the commissioner and the principal standing in for the bumbling idiot); and maintain a productive employment relationship in which the parties are, among other things, responsive and communicative.
How do you think the Employment Relations Act is going to stand up in what follows Hekia?
What happens has your stamp all over it. On 26 February, the commissioner meets with the senior leadership team, shares her redacted Adviser’s Report, and then instructs them to refrain from all contact with the principal.
The commissioner is now the employer, the principal, though, is still the principal but in carrying out her responsibilities forbidden from contact with the senior leadership team. Is that good faith or contributing to a productive employment relationship? How can the principal properly carry out her responsibilities in such a situation and environment? That can only lead to suspension – constructive suspension.
Would someone tell me what dreadful thing the principal had done to merit such a draconian restriction? Putting a principal of a school into a two-way Coventry. How does that work? How can that end? only in suspension.
The draconian, Kafkan actions and ritual psychological torment are now en train, and are occurring to accomplish three ends: to prevent people finding out the commissioner appointment and board dismissal scenarios are a fraud; to break the will of the principal to remove her from the school and education; and for the commissioner to get her hands on some of that $18 million in assets.
The first communication from the commissioner to the principal was a letter of instruction not to speak to the media. Something that would only be fair if the commissioner herself used the media in a way fair to the principal, but that was far from the case. It was a one way street of unfairness
The Christchurch Press, having used the OIA, had the Adviser’s Report, and relayed those inaccuracies about the principal’s conference trip and the financial position of the school to the nation. The commissioner, in turn, had the Finance Adviser’s Report which was highly praising of the school’s financial position, but said nothing.
The commissioner instructed a senior staff member to remove from the school safe, a sealed white envelope containing a private and confidential document – a letter to the principal’s lawyer – prepared by the principal. The commissioner going into the safe for the document and reading it was bad enough, publishing it was an act of extreme bad faith.
The next one is creepily Kafkan (the flippancy has now drained out of me from the misery of it all): the commissioner ordered the principal to return from the SPANZ Conference (Secondary Principals Association) one day early (if you are wondering where SPANZ was, it has been pretty staunch for the principal, but where was the School Trustees Association? – well you are going to find out soon, and will be horrified; STA must also be included in any resultant inquiry) so the commissioner and principal could meet. The Principal’s Executive Assistant had to change flights and accommodation to organise this. The principal as a result was unable to attend the Maadi Cup Regatta in Cambridge to support the Rangiora High School students. However, when the principal arrived back on 25 March, the commissioner was not on site, indeed, didn’t attend any meeting with the principal for another week. The principal knew this was intended to humiliate and torment, also to separate her from the students.
The principal’s March report was not well received by the commissioner. She said it had too much information and was confusing. The commissioner asked the principal to re-format the report (dear reader, you know what is going on here, and it near makes me weep, how can a person do this kind of thing to another? what is the motivation? what psychological forces drive it?). The commissioner said she would provide a format but said nothing about the content of the report. No template was forthcoming.
The May report was presented in the old format. No template was forthcoming. Once again nothing was said about the content of the report.
The principal was being isolated, ignored, and humiliated by her employer. The commissioner as her employer made no attempt to include her as part of a team, to have collaborative meetings, or include the principal in any of her plans for the school, in effect, the commissioner was the ‘principal’ as commissioner. Except for a STA representative (would you believe) and CES secretarial services instead of the board secretary, the principal attended meetings with the commissioner alone.
Clearly to harass the principal further, the commissioner dug into the archives to find four parent complaints that had long been dealt with. To cut the story short, after all these were investigated at some expense and much bother, nothing at all came from them, for the simple reason they had been fairly and efficiently dealt with in the first place.
This is all becoming too much for me as I contemplate this in the course of the writing process – I’m hopping mad and upset. Where does Hekia find these people or do they gravitate towards her like minds alike? However, it is the system to blame.
Now I intend to go fully through the next horror even though it is more of the same only much worse.
The principal spent six weeks of Term 1 2015 completing the Annual Report of Variance for 2014 as is required under the legislation. She then provided the report to the commissioner one month in advance of the date for submission to the ministry of education to meet the May annual reporting deadline. On 2 April, twenty-four hours after the commissioner received the report, she instructed the principal to revise its format and presentation and provided the principal with a copy of the Marlborough Girls’ College Analysis of Variance Report 2014, suggesting this document might serve as a more suitable template to assist with the revisions she required. This was somewhat surprising given that the principal had been complimented by the ministry on the quality of Planning and Reporting by Rangiora High School. In fact, she had received an email asking if the Rangiora High School Report of Variance/Charter could be used by the ministry for professional learning to be offered to other Canterbury schools. As well, such reports do and should vary according to different school charters.
On 9 April, as a compromise, the principal wrote to the commissioner requesting leave to retain the format for the 2014 Report of Variance but offered to re-format the 2015 document in the format requested. This was refused by the commissioner.
The revised Report of Variance was completed and distributed to the ministry and the commissioner by the due date – 31 May 2015.
This is unconscionable (and it’s not finished).
On 7 April, TVNZ 6.00 pm news carried a story of allegations of financial impropriety by the principal. The commissioner made no public comment to set the record straight, even though she had a copy of Mike Rondel’s Finances Scoping Report at hand.
More torment, isolation, and humiliation?
The principal again asked to retain the format for the 2014 Variance Report as being more suitable for Rangiora High School but the commissioner said ‘no’.
This next matter is unlikely to be verified unless one of the two people involved admits it, but it happened, and it happened to the principal, and it was humiliating, devastatingly so, and was to play on her mind to prolonged, destructive effect – why would she lie about it? how would someone with such a straightforward way of thinking, make up such a thing? Yes – in some ways a small matter but oh so personal. Mike Rondel, how would you like your wife or daughter to be commented on in this manner? I’m calling on you in all decency.
The principal attended a finance meeting at BDO, the accountants. At the end of the meeting, the principal left by the foyer and heard the commissioner say behind her, in a whisper to Mike Rondel, but absolutely distinctly: ‘Look at the shoes.’ And she heard a snorting laugh. She felt hugely diminished and embarrassed.
Michael Parkin, TVNZ, contacted the principal by email about a letter he had received. She did not respond except to alert the commissioner. The commissioner decided to hire a private investigator, Paul Bass, to pursue the matter, at the cost of many tens of thousands of dollars. The principal was informed that there would be a full forensic investigation. The result came to no conclusion though a futile attempt was made to point the blame towards the principal. (More on this to follow.)
The principal had been working with the deputy principal for years on a reorganisation of TEZ (Transport Entitlement Zones) but was excluded from meetings with Kaiapoi High School on the matter. Once again, highly antithetical to productive employment relationships.
All this time there were multiple investigations occurring for instance, those concerning the four archival parental complaints (school handling upheld as reported above); and the highly intrusive and aggressive one by Paul Bass. (The Grainger Report will be left to another posting – stand by it do you Dr Grainger? all that education experience put to ethical use was it?)
There was another meeting at BDO (a private accounting firm), with the commissioner and Michael Rondel in attendance along with the principal. The topic was the 2015 budget deficit of $600,000, largely made up of a purchase of two prefabs for Learning Support. The principal’s reservation about lack of due diligence was ignored at the time. She was concerned that the budget was larger than it had been in her 12 years at the school. (I suspect that the ministry will have no compunction running up a high deficit to provide an excuse for selling land assets to reduce it; also to pay for the hundreds of thousands of dollars on investigations to pull the principal down and defend the commissioner’s actions, and for the commissioner’s pay and various advisers.)
And that Kafkan move again to separate the principal from the students and unsettle her. She was told to leave the Principal’s Assembly early to meet Paul Bass again. There was no urgency just more humiliating bullying.
At a meeting to discuss another matter, the commissioner, out of the blue, added the leaking of documents to NZTV. This resulted in the principal being sent home to pick up her school laptop for forensic analysis. Upon her return to school, the principal was subjected to an interrogation by the commissioner, Paul Bass, and the STA representative. (My goodness, here is a board being unlawfully dismissed, and here is the STA representative worrying about a fiddly matter like a media leak.)
But, as indicated above, the commissioner would not let the Variance matter go; she was determined to drive the principal into the ground on this one. She required the principal and deputy principal curriculum to meet with Vanessa Goodwin from the ministry to be taught how to do it, great stuff Vanessa, you would have well known the dirty little game that was being played, congratulations for your part in it. The supposed purpose was for the principal to ‘understand’ the requirements of Variance reporting. Oh come on!
The principal prepared a briefing paper for Mike Rondel expressing concern about invoices for payment. As a result, she was excluded from all further meetings with the ministry about school projects and finance matters. Very convenient (see about costs above).
A letter comes from the commissioner on 5 June informing the principal she is beginning disciplinary procedures under CEA Clause 6.3.
The commissioner reserves her decision, promising to provide a written decision by 22 June.
On 20 June, the manager of the 1st XV announces to the team and parents present that the principal has been suspended.
On 21 June, an emailed letter is sent from the commissioner – no personal meeting – and the principal is suspended, and has not been on the school site since.
Staff were told by the commissioner not to contact the principal.
As the year developed and the time arrived for the principal to return to work, the commissioner, in a behaviour laden with horrifying historical connotations, insisted on further medical reports.
The Kafkan power of the intervention process is such that there is rarely a genuine problem beyond that manufactured by the intervention process itself, meaning that those complaining only need to keep complaining for the intervention process to produce the Kafkan situation of irrationality so deviously favourable to their ends. Once the intervention is in place, the question becomes not what the problem was, but whether the principal is perfect in every respect? And the principal, no matter how insignificant the imperfection revealed or how irrelevant to the initial ‘problem’, is always caught out, and much is made of that, and is a goner. After all, those making the judgement are those arrayed against the principal from the beginning. It seems the advice given by a character in Kafka should have been heeded: ‘The only right thing to do was to come to terms with the circumstances as they were.’ And principals should ready themselves to have their vocations made to die ‘Like a dog!’ with the shame to outlive them.
The institutionalised lying, the organization for cheating, and in this case, the endemic bullying – it’s the system stupid.