Still waiting 7 years on

FOR the seventh successive summer the principal of Kilkenny City Vocational School saw off her Leaving Certificate students under a dark cloud.

This shadow has lasted for almost 2,200 days and cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of euro.

And all this just to produce a 37-page interim report into the performance of one woman’s first four years as principal of a small city “tech”.

This document has still to be published and the Department of Education has no idea when the inquiry will be ready for public consumption.

THE ORIGINS

Kilkenny Vocational Education Committee sought to suspend Cathy McSorley in 2005 after a string of controversies, staff stand-offs, allegations and bad publicity.

An internal report, penned by management consultant John Dowling in July 2003, had branded the tech a “school in crisis” and was highly critical of both the management and Ms McSorley.

A separate Whole School Evaluation report from May 2004 said that confidence and trust needed to be re-established among staff and a clear and unambiguous discipline structure had to be developed.

Another 16-page VEC sub-committee report on Ms McSorley’s principalship was blocked by a High Court order from being considered at a higher level.

Throughout this period there had been a string of well-publicised stories of chronic indiscipline by students. These culminated in a suspected arson attack and threats against teachers.

Finally there was an inconclusive report, by the chief executive of Waterford VEC Paddy Lavelle in January 2005, into allegations that some students were paid €25-a-day to attend school on certain days to boost roll numbers.

The crossfire of allegation, defence, threat and counter allegation culminated in a decision by Mr Justice Paul Gilligan in the High Court to grant an injunction to Ms McSorley preventing her suspension pending a proposed departmental inquiry. She has always denied the allegations which formed the basis of the inquires.

On June 24, 2005, the judge recommended that this proceed with “all due haste”.

What has happened since has, at various stages, been described as “frustrating”, “inexplicable”, “bizarre” and of “grave concern”.

Today Ms McSorley is still the principal. The inquiry has cost more than €310,000, before potential legal challenges. And a draft interim report was only recently circulated.

Many of the key players have resigned, retired or moved on.

And documents released to the Irish Examiner under the Freedom of Information act reveal the simmering annoyance from all quarters at the seven-year fiasco.

THE INQUIRY

In February 2006 then education minister Mary Hanafin responded to the court order by asking the retired assistant chief inspector Torlach O’Connor to head an inquiry.

Ms Hanafin had three options available to her at the time.

One was to suspend Ms McSorley, as was requested by the VEC, and set up an inquiry.

The second was to establish the inquiry and allow Ms McSorley to remain at her post.

The third was to do nothing.

Following the advice of the Attorney General in December 2005 the second option was adopted.

The minister was realistic. She did not expect this to be completed by the end of the 2005/2006 academic year but the department felt it would be concluded “as soon as possible”.

This early optimism resurfaced at various points in the intervening years.

However, behind the scenes the foreboding was clear from the outset.

“It is looking like a real bag of cats. And if it ends up going down the legal route [it] could take forever, though not if I can help it,” Mr O’Connor said in initial correspondence to the department.

He went on to say that having met the VEC and Ms McSorley both were courteous and had indicated their willingness to co-operate fully. He said almost everyone would probably be glad to get closure “almost whatever the outcome”.

That was all on March 3, 2006.

After a scoping visit to the Marble City in April that year Mr O’Connor set up temporary camp in the Kilkenny VEC building, where an office and filing cabinet were supplied to him. He had requested the services of a recorder and note taker and one was arranged from a transcription firm.

Four lever arch files were sent down to him in four parcels. These contained 106 separate documents that the department had identified as being relevant.

At a later stage allegations were made about the misuse of school money. Mr O’Connor was given permission to engage a firm of accountants and this company, Crowley DFK, provided him with a separate report in 2007.

Since then Mr O’Connor has been paid €100,200 for his part-time role.

His legal advisers, McDowell Purcell, have received €210,220.12.

“Other costs” of €13,000 have also been incurred.

THE PRINCIPAL

Cathy McSorley took over as principal in 1999. Her job took in responsibility for the adjacent Ormonde College PLC and the Irish-speaking Coláiste Pobail Osraí.

The school had a typically vocational ethos and it would always have had an above average ratio of special needs pupils. However, her relationship with staff and the union soured as reports of indiscipline and bullying surfaced in the early part of the last decade.

Rather than walking away when the VEC looked for her suspension, she secured a court injunction to allow her to keep her job.

Ms McSorley was formally told about how the inquiry would affect her in March 2006. She was warned the minister had decided not to cover her legal costs and if she chose to be represented the bill could fall on her.

Precedent from the tribunals on the issue of costs is mixed, but if she ultimately losses her fight she will have to pay the extraordinarily large legal bill for her defence.

She has continued to run the school since the court order and to outsiders the controversies appeared to evaporate.

Despite such a concerted effort to oust her from her post she has, in fact, lasted longer than others involved.

The chief executive of the VEC who sought to suspend her, Rodger Curran, retired last year. Staff with whom she had the most difficulty have also retired.

And even the Kilkenny VEC committee is set to be abolished and amalgamated with Kildare under pending reforms.

Ms McSorley was contacted ahead of this article but she did not want to comment on the findings of the inquiry.

She said it had been a “difficult time”.

“I am looking forward to its release, it has been hanging over me,” she said.

ROLLING DEADLINES

Deadlines and commitments during this inquiry have drifted into the distance one after another.

First the 2005/2006 year came and went. And, when the school closed for the summer in 2007, Mr Curran, wrote to the department expressing serious worries that as long as the inquiry continued the school’s viability was in doubt.

On July 30, 2007, Mr O’Connor told the department he hoped to complete it by the end of 2007.

In December 2007, he finished taking evidence from witnesses and put matters to Ms McSorley for her response.

In January 2008 he spoke with the department and there was an indicative plan to have the report with the minister in February or early March.

At that stage the inquiry had cost €85,194.

But Ms Hanafin was impatient. And, following another phonecall from an official to Mr O’Connor, she evoked a clause in the terms of reference and demanded the delivery of an interim report.

This was to be on her desk by July 2008. She was then shifted out of Marlborough Street in the cabinet reshuffle and Batt O’Keeffe took her place. He received no report, interim or otherwise.

Increasingly frustrated correspondence from the VEC reached the department at this time.

However, of immediate concern to the department was the processing of seven invoices related to the inquiry. These were received from Mr O’Connor between May 2008 and January 2009.

Despite publicity in the Kilkenny People newspaper, the furore faded again. When it resurfaced later in 2009 Mr O’Connor said he had just finished taking evidence — on September 23, 2009 — and would be finished in three months.

At this point the costs had risen to €260,773, with the majority going toward legal fees.

Three months passed by and no report was forthcoming. In March 2010, Mr O’Keeffe promised to have the interim report shortly. That year the price of the inquiry rose another €39,226 and, at last, Mr O’Connor was in a position to deliver an interim report.

It came in August 2010. It had 37 pages with 1,682 pages of appendices and these contained the submissions of the witnesses and the various parties. Mr O’Connor’s work was done.

But rather than being published it was referred to the Attorney General where the trail went cold again.

The lack of a finish line has had knock-on consequences for everybody involved.

Kay Browne is secretary of the parents’ association.

In one of the extraordinary quirks of this inquiry her son is aged 23 and he sat his leaving certificate four years ago at Kilkenny City VEC. But when Mr O’Connor began his work the association was one of the parties to the inquiry so its members were asked to stay in situ until his report was finished.

This has meant Ms Browne has had to stay on as secretary of a parents’ association in a school where she no longer has a child attending.

But she must wait until the book is eventually closed before she is freed from her position.

She said parents are astounded at how long the inquiry has gone on.

“I just do not know how they can justify the cost. I don’t know what it took so long. We met with Mr O’Connor in May 2006 in a hotel in Kilkenny,” she said.

“But I just cannot for the life of me understand what has gone on. We are totally baffled as to why this has taken so long and the cost of it.

“I think if you walked down the street in Kilkenny nobody would even know it was still going on, they wouldn’t believe it.”

THE SITUATION NOW

The members of the VEC have seen a copy, briefly. It was sent down in April for a confidential review and taken back to Dublin immediately.

The members are understood to be very happy with its contents but not willing to comment openly.

Ms McSorley is also hopeful it will be published. But she is anxious that all aspects of the report be published, including the lengthy appendices.

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has written to both parties asking them for observations. There has been some contact with Ms McSorley’s legal team, Hayes Solicitors.

In a statement, the department said: “County Kilkenny VEC has stated that it does not propose to make any further representations at this time.

“Solicitors acting for the principal sought additional documentation (the appendices) and this was provided in early June by this department. A detailed submission on behalf of the principal has just been received and is being considered.”

The parents’ association has no idea what the interim report has said. Nor have they been party to the ongoing legal dispute.

So the affair drags on with no end in sight. The pupils of Kilkenny City Vocational School have left school for another summer’s holidays.

The legal bill has risen to €210,220.12.

And the shadow of the forgotten inquiry, initiated in response to attempts to suspend one member of staff, hangs over the Kilkenny Tech for a seventh summer.

Timeline

HOW long can one inquiry take?

July 2003

Management consultant John Dowling produces a report for the VEC which brands Kilkenny Tech a “school in crisis”.

May 2004

A whole-school evaluation recommends issues in discipline and staffing be addressed.

January 2005

A report by Paddy Lavelle into alleged payments to students to attend school by Ms McSorley, proves inconclusive.

April 2005

A strike by TUI teachers is averted after the VEC agrees to beef up security and install CCTV cameras after threats to teachers.

Spring 2005

A sub-committee of Kilkenny VEC reports on Ms McSorley, drawing on previous reviews. This report is blocked from going further.

June 24, 2005

The High Court grants an injunction to Ms McSorley allowing her to stay in her job pending the outcome of a departmental inquiry and stops it using the Dowling Report to discipline her.

February 20, 2006

Education Minister Mary Hanafin appoints Turloch O’Connor to conduct an inquiry into the performance of Ms McSorley.

April and May 2006

Mr O’Connor travels to Kilkenny to brief those who will be involved in the inquiry.

Early 2007

Mr O’Connor engages accountants to review the finances of the school.

February 14, 2008

Ms Hanafin demands an interim report and sets a deadline for its publication as both she and the department were anxious to see the situation resolved.

July 1, 2008

Deadline for the interim report passes.

September 2009

The department is told Mr O’Connor’s report is likely to be finished by the end of the year.

August 2010

Mr O’Connor’s interim report is finally delivered to the minister Mary Coughlan who refers it to the Attorney General. By then the cast had tipped over €300,000.

April 2011

New Education Minister Ruairi Quinn asks the VEC and Ms McSorley to make observations on the 37-page interim report.

June 2011

The department supplies Ms McSorley with more than 1,600 pages of appendices to Mr O’Connor’s interim report.

June 24, 2011

The sixth anniversary of the High Court injunction passes with no end in sight.

The terms

RETIRED assistant chief inspector at the Department of Education, Torlach O’Connor, was appointed on February 20, 2006 to inquire into the performance of Cathy McSorley, the principal of Kilkenny City VEC.

He was asked produce a report on:nThe organisation and administration of the school.

* The alleged failure of Ms McSorley to apply the school’s discipline policy.

* The alleged bullying of staff by Ms McSorley.

* The alleged failure of Ms McSorley to follow the lawful orders of Kilkenny VEC and its chief executive.

* The keeping of roll books by Ms McSorley and the supervision of an overseas trip in February 2001.

* The alleged payment of students by Ms McSorley to attend school. He was asked to produced this report “as speedily and in as efficient a manner as possible”.

That was 1,953 days ago but a final report has still to be published.



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