By Kalafi Moala
Nuku’alofa, Tonga – It was at the ceremony where Prime Minister Rev. Dr. Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa was conferred as a Certified Fellow Accountant last week in Nuku’alofa, that Lord Sevele, a former Prime Minister, made a plea with the Prime Minister to help fix the mismanagement of government subsidy funds granted to non-government schools.
The ceremony which was broadcast and streamed live was watched by many, not only in Tonga but also from overseas.
Responses to the speech by Lord Sevele almost went “viral” among the Tongan community, that a special news item needed to be released on it.
It has been revealed that the two main church bodies running schools in Tonga, the Roman Catholic Church and the Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga, have misused government subsidy funds for non-government schools.
Other non-government school authorities are also suspected of mismanagement of the funds.
This has given cause for the Ministry of Education and Training (MET) to demand from the Catholic Schools Education Authority a reimbursement of about $500,000 before any further funds would be released to them.
It is understood that in the past school year there has not been any subsidy funds released to the Catholic Schools. Funds are still being held by MET for Catholic Schools, reportedly up to $1 million pa’anga.
The effect of this lack of subsidized funding is being felt by teachers at ‘Apifo’ou College, in such a way that as recent as late last year, there were talks of a teacher strike, and some teachers are reported to have expressed disappointment at what was happening, and were preparing to leave teaching altogether.
It is reported funds aimed at supplementing the salaries of teachers were spent on other things. A source revealed that only 50% of the funds were spent on supplementing salaries. If this was so, then how was the other 50% spent?
Soane Vahe, the Director of Catholic Education, has declined to comment on the issue.
The Free Wesleyan Church Schools are reported to be facing similar problems, even though bigger in terms of the amount mismanaged due to the fact they have a lot more students; more so than any other non-government education organization in Tonga.
Their subsidy funds run about $3 million pa’anga a year. Details are still forthcoming.
However, Lord Sevele in his speech pleaded with the Prime Minister to engage in getting this problem fixed.
As an accountant and former auditor, Prime Minister Tu’i’onetoa, is referred to by Lord Sevele as “the right person to get this problem fixed.” He referred to the fact that “we’ve worked together before and this is something that you alone can get it fixed.”
History and administration of the subsidy funds
Lord Sevele said that when the subsidy grants were initiated, he was Director of Catholic Education then. “We had grants of $20 per student head when it started,” he said.
The funds had gone through several raises since the beginning. What is paid out now is at $700 per student. That can amount to a lot of subsidy money in these non-government schools, but the purpose from the beginning was to help supplement the salaries of teachers.
The purpose of the funds as stated in a Cabinet Approved guideline on 28 June 2018, is “to assist non-government middle and secondary schools to improve the conditions of service of teachers in these schools, which include the supplementation of their salaries.”
The schools also included Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) institutions.
A Subsidy Administration Manual was drafted and approved by Cabinet in 2018, which provides guidelines, conditions, and procedures on how to administer the funds.
The conditions and procedures set out in this guideline is what have been violated by the church schools mentioned. As one source says, “there has been violations of the law and those who did so must be brought to account.”
In the foreword, it is stated that “the manual should enable all parties to address and monitor their respective roles in the processing, disbursement, monitoring, evaluation and reporting of the use of the funds as per financing agreements and memorandum of understanding between non-government education systems and the Ministry of Education.”
New Zealand and Australia also provide additional funding support to supplement this grant and others.
The concerns raised in Lord Sevele’s speech are violations of conditions and procedures that are clearly spelled out in this 2018 Cabinet Approved manual.
General administration guidelines include MET and other school authorities monitoring schools “to make sure that all procedures are followed correctly.”
It is also stated that “subsidy can be used for ‘allowable’ items only as per ‘conditions’ set out.”
But “the main use of the funds is to supplement teachers’ work conditions – salaries.”
And here are the conditions for use: “Grant to be used to top up salaries for qualified teachers and to school management staff who hold teaching duties and who meet the minimum teaching requirements.”
The action of MET in demanding reimbursement from the Catholic Education is done in accordance with conditions of this 2018 manual: “That (the) grant will be reimbursed to the Government if it is not used for the purpose for which it was approved.”
And another condition for use: “Grant will be withdrawn if the Minister is not satisfied with the performance of any of the schools to which the grant was made.”
It would be the responsibility of the Government to order the Ministry of Education to investigate and monitor the administration of the subsidy funds as stated in the guideline manual.
There should also be the engagement of the office of the Auditor General in the investigation of the administration of the funds.
The misuse of a huge amount of public funds as has been partially revealed about the subsidy funds has all the hallmarks of corruption by public religious organizations that are supposed to be the moral guardians of society.