Battles over books causing 'so many delays'
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They say it threatens to delay getting next year's books to schools on time.
Acting provincial education department head Mthunywa Ngonzo announced in June that he would revoke the right of section 21 schools to procure textbooks and the department would do so for them. This would apply to schools in the three poorest income categories, he said.
Section 21 schools are those deemed capable of procuring their own pupil-teacher support material, including textbooks, using the provincial department's funds. In the case of section 20 schools, the department is responsible for procurement.
The Legal Resources Centre said Ngonzo's actions were "unlawful". School governing bodies said the department had not followed the correct procedures and they had no faith that it would ensure the textbooks were delivered on time.
"Of course we want to continue to procure textbooks on our own … The department has failed us so many times because of corruption and financial mismanagement, so why would we trust it to procure textbooks for us?" said Earnest Gqamane, secretary of the Rockville school governing body association that represents 26 section 21 Schools in the Ndizana district.
"[Ngonzo] has no right to take away our powers without following proper procedures."
There are more than 5 800 schools in the province, of which 5 400 are section 21 schools.
In response to the June announcement, the Legal Resources Centre, representing five school governing bodies, appealed to Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga to intervene in the matter, saying Ngonzo's moves "flagrantly flaunted many principles of fair administrative action and … the reasons put forward by [him] for taking the decision are not reasonable and rational".
The minister placed the province under section 100 administration last year.
The centre asked Motshekga to reverse Ngonzo's decision and ensure that funds for textbooks be released timeously so that schools that did not wish to participate could begin their own procurement process. Motshekga granted this request.
Ngonzo "persisted", however, sending out more circulars stating that the schools unwilling to participate in centralised procurement would need to indicate so by Wednesday this week. Failing this, they would automatically be included in the department's procurement, an unlawful demand, said Sarah Sephton, director of the centre's Grahamstown office. "What we need to be asking is why he is pushing for this so hard," she said.
On Tuesday, the department extended this deadline to September 21, saying the funds for these schools to procure textbooks would be transferred within 30 days, pending submission of proof of order of the textbooks. But this announcement caused further fear of delays.
"This fight has caused so many delays. Everyone – parents, teachers, pupils – is concerned," said Tobeka Vapi, principal of Maganise Secondary School in the Libode district near Mthatha.
"By this time of year, books and stationery are [usually] already being delivered to schools. We are definitely worried. If we get the money and can do the procurement right now then we will be fine, but what happens if there are delays on the publisher's side?"
Sephton said it also emerged this week that Ngonzo "appears to have gone ahead and procured textbooks for many section 20 and section 21 schools anyway".
"I can only assume that he placed the orders before the schools knew that they had the option to opt out of centralised procurement."
Sephton said she spoke to principals who joined school governing bodies at a meeting with Ngonzo in Somerset East last week. Here, Ngonzo "apparently told participants that he had already procured textbooks and that the schools should buy directly from him".
"He threatened that if they chose to buy directly from the publishers, the publishers might not have enough stock and there would be a delay in getting textbooks to schools."
This amounted to "holding a gun to schools' heads", Sephton said.
The centre, which now represents 42 school governing bodies, has written to the provincial department asking it to confirm that this is not the case. Departmental spokesperson Malibongwe Mtima said he did not want to confirm or deny allegations that Ngonzo had threatened schools.
He maintained that 83% of section 21 schools had indicated that they wished to be part of centralised procurement. He did not say when they had indicated this, but claimed that textbook procurement for these schools was "at an advanced stage".
Mtima said centralised procurement was an attempt to ensure timeous procurement of textbooks for pupils in the most economical way. Referring to the discounts acquired for bulk orders with publishers, he said the department needed to take advantage of "economies of scale".
In previous years, there had also been non-payment of service providers by schools and this had to be avoided this year, he said.