Forensic probe launched as 384 principals leave massive textbook bills unpaid

HUNDREDS of Eastern Cape schools are being probed by forensic investigators to track down what happened to R75million meant for textbooks.

The department has discovered hundreds of schools, of the type that are responsible for buying their own stationery and textbooks out of money allocated by the department, have failed to pay suppliers.

Now suppliers have approached the department for payment, prompting the forensic investigation.

Already nearly 400 schools have been identified but hundreds more are being probed by Pricewaterhousecoopers (PWC).

In the last financial year, the department allocated R700m to schools to buy their own books.

Reports shown to the Daily Dispatch revealed R75m meant for textbooks was not paid over to suppliers.

So far 384 schools from 10 districts, which collectively owe more than R4m to booksellers despite having received money from the department, have been identified.

One report stated due to non-payment, the Publishers’ Association of South Africa (Pasa) issued a notice to suppliers not to provide books to implicated schools until payments were made.

“For the bookseller to pay Pasa, the school must pay the bookseller.

“The booksellers state schools have used the Learner Teacher Support Material budget for other purposes. Booksellers also state schools are awaiting this [financial] year’s transfer payment to offset last year’s debt and the model is not financially viable as publishers are resorting to legal demand,” the report stated.

The department recently contracted the services of PWC for eight months to further beef up the efforts of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) and the Hawks to clean up corruption in its ranks.

“The team of investigators will be visiting schools as part of the investigation,” education spokesman Loyiso Pulumani said yesterday.

The department was unable to provide a list of the 384 schools that owe booksellers a total of R4 423 181, but gave a breakdown of what is owed across the 10 districts: Cofimvaba owes over R152 000; Cradock owes R310 000; Dutywa R1 000; Fort Beaufort R424 000; King William’s Town R59 000; Lady Frere over R1m; Mount Fletcher R6 181; Ngcobo close to R471 000; Queenstown just over R1m; and Sterkspruit more than R1m. Assessments at schools in the remaining 13 districts are yet to be conducted. Education officials have now recommended the department reviews the transfer of funds to schools and that it buys textbooks on their behalf.

COPE education spokeswoman Angela Woodhall blamed the department for not adequately monitoring schools.

She also accused the department of transferring funds late in the last financial year.

“The department claims it has set up systems to perform administration efficiently.

“We want to see a fast-track approach to all administration matters in the province,” Woodhall said.

Eastern Cape education portfolio committee chairman Mzoleli Mrara said the committee supported the investigation.

“We support any attempted measures to arrest mismanagement of funds in schools.

“We still believe, from the outlook of infrastructure, there is no difference between section 20 schools [which have their books procured by the department] and these schools.

“It’s clear something is happening somewhere that needs to be investigated to know whether these schools are under-funded or there is misuse of funds.”

DA shadow MEC for education Edmund van Vuuren also put the blame on the department, saying it had failed to train principals on financial management.

Van Vuuren said schools sent their financial statements to the department and such irregularities should have been picked up.

“It takes a year for the department to pick up something wrong was happening with the finances of schools.

“Education development officers don’t assist principals and guide them on correct ways of spending these allocations.

“In many cases, principals are appointed without any training in financial management.”

UDM MPL Jackson Bici said the department should take action against schools which misused the allocations for textbooks.

“The MEC must act against anyone who is going to be found to have misused the money.

“These reports are tainting the image of the department and now booksellers are not going to provide services and pupils are going to suffer. Heads should roll after the investigations,” Bici said. — msindisif@