“Game of Thrones in cardigans” meme of PMSA councillors, doing the rounds. From left: Richard Niessl, Jim Demack, Helen Murray, Greg Adsett, Anne Bennett, Greg Rogers, Greg Skelton, Jacqueline McPherson.
“Game of Thrones in cardigans” meme of PMSA councillors, doing the rounds. From left: Richard Niessl, Jim Demack, Helen Murray, Greg Adsett, Anne Bennett, Greg Rogers, Greg Skelton, Jacqueline McPherson.

Elite schools hit a low mark

LOVE it or hate it, the "Old School Tie" network of the private school club runs deep in Brisbane.

At the top end of town in the Queensland capital, it's not what you know, but who you know, and what school you went to.

But it is exactly this elitism - or secret society mentality - that has brought a "faceless" group of church elders unstuck in the deepening scandal engulfing four private schools.

Dubbed "Game of Thrones in cardigans" in a meme doing the rounds, the unfolding fiasco has played out like the fantasy series. There have been public "beheadings", betrayals, deposed rulers, and even nudity with secret meetings in a Korean bath house.

Disturbingly, this real-life drama has cost the careers and reputations of at least five educators in just two weeks and cast a dark shadow over the fate of almost 4500 students.

At the heart of the scandal, the Presbyterian and Methodist Schools Association has been accused of presiding over a toxic culture "with no accountability or transparency".

"I've got no stomach for the PMSA anymore. They think they can win by beating people over the head with a stick," says Ian McDonald, a Somerville House Council independent member who resigned, effective immediately, on Thursday night.

"There are so many good people who have been hurt by this, and so many parents kept in the dark, with spin doctors trying to cover up the truth, it's all just really too disappointing and I don't want to be a part of it.''

“Game of Thrones in cardigans” meme of PMSA councillors, doing the rounds. From left: Richard Niessl, Jim Demack, Helen Murray, Greg Adsett, Anne Bennett, Greg Rogers, Greg Skelton, Jacqueline McPherson.
“Game of Thrones in cardigans” meme of PMSA councillors, doing the rounds. From left: Richard Niessl, Jim Demack, Helen Murray, Greg Adsett, Anne Bennett, Greg Rogers, Greg Skelton, Jacqueline McPherson.

 

The PMSA, made up of Uniting Church and Presbyterian Church elders, governs Somerville House, Brisbane Boys College, Clayfield College and Sunshine Coast Grammar School. It employs 700 staff and has an annual turnover of about $80 million.

As exclusively revealed by The Courier-Mail, the PMSA has been accused of a cover-up over an alleged data breach involving thousands of confidential files of some of the state's most prominent figures, including Governor Paul de Jersey.

De Jersey and business leaders, multi-millionaire benefactors, lawyers, doctors and charity workers were notified of the "serious privacy breach".

Internal audits obtained by the newspaper show almost 10,000 files were copied by former Somerville House business manager, now PMSA executive manager, Rick Hiley, who is paid a $350,000-a-year salary package. These included 2400 files from his former employer, TAFE Queensland and Lifeline.

Audits of the metadata show it included health records, a coroner's report, tax file numbers, staff files, and personal identifying information.

It also included confidential details of individuals, donation amounts, addresses, director's signatures, as well as staff contracts, salaries and resumes.

Legal advice sent to the PMSA alleges the "unauthorised" mass download, which Hiley has admitted to, was a breach of the PMSA and the school's Code of Conduct, of the Intellectual Property Code and of Australia's Privacy Act.

Anti-PMSA protesters outside Somerville House School in South Brisbane yesterday. Picture: AAP/Claudie Baxter
Anti-PMSA protesters outside Somerville House School in South Brisbane yesterday. Picture: AAP/Claudie Baxter

 

The audits also revealed a series of bizarre text exchanges between Hiley and former PMSA chairman Robert McCall, a decorated Queensland Police inspector who has since resigned his position with the church body.

The texts show the two men organised "covert" meetings for "secret men's business" to exchange sensitive material and do "Eddie the Eagle" in a nude spa at a Korean bath house during school hours.

"Would you like to be radical and finally go over to the spa which is not far from your office?" texted McCall.

"I'm happy to go to the spa - I'm a prude when it comes to public nudity though,'' replied Hiley.

"Happy for a clothed lunch if that is more comfortable. Yep can be confronting at first but you get over it,'' said McCall.

The texts also suggest meetings at inner-city clubs, restaurants and a "hippy, joint-smoking garden club".

Later they exchange texts again about a "covert" rendezvous for "secret men's business".

Rick Hiley, PMSA executive manager.
Rick Hiley, PMSA executive manager.

"Hey Rick - Do you want to do the 'Eddie (the) Eagle' thing next week,'' wrote McCall.

"Hey trust your experience was not too dramatic - trust I will not find Eddie the Eagle lying on the edge of the pool next time I attend.''

Hiley replied: "Less dramatic than anticipated. You'll never see me spread out next to the pool - that's just not right and comes with a very high degree of self-admiration no doubt.''

McCall texted back: "Yes agreed - it is good for you occasionally - I tend not to like it overcrowded. Some of the elderly Koreans grunt and groan which can be amusing.''

The texts also show the pair covertly discussed a succession plan for Hiley to step into a newly created executive manager role at the PMSA.

"Hi Rob, on the mind to know if there has been any movement - don't mean to pester. Deviously excited lately, which is very naughty indeed,'' said Hiley.

"OK Rick. The current EM contract finishes at July which can be part of ... our confidential discussion,'' McCall replied.

They also arranged to exchange by private email a highly confidential Deloitte report, commissioned by the PMSA in 2015, which proposed the merger of the four schools.

Former Police Inspector and former PMSA chair Robert McCall.
Former Police Inspector and former PMSA chair Robert McCall.

 

Somerville House principal Flo Kearney, who was tasked with heading the internal probe into the privacy breach, is understood to have got wind of the lewd texts and alleged collusion between the two men.

The Courier-Mail also understands the highly regarded educator at the $22,000-a-year school was deeply opposed to the centralisation of the four different school entities and stood her ground.

The Deloitte report suggests, under the secret "As One" strategy, significant staff cuts, and students are referred to as "business units".

In a bombshell, the PMSA announced Kearney's resignation on October 10, which led to several other senior staff members quitting in protest, including Head of Boarding Pamela Hodgetts and Dean of Students Karon Graham.

"We're puzzled and perplexed. To me, it is unethical,'' Hodgetts, a proud Somerville House (Class of 1966) old girl says.

"My blood runs green, and so does Flo's. But she was prepared to sacrifice her career, reputation and position at this school. We just feel hollow. We're just not getting the answers we deserve.''

Former Somerville House principle Flo Kearney.
Former Somerville House principle Flo Kearney.

Outraged parents have called for heads to roll, including Hiley's, who surfaced this week to personally stand down Kearney and Director of Communications Sarah Dreaver, seizing their work computers and phones.

Yesterday, PMSA chairman Greg Adsett broke his silence to speak to Insight for the first time as the scandal engulfed both BBC and Clayfield College with claims of a string of high-profile resignations in similar circumstances.

"We appreciate and understand the frustration of some parents. We apologise. It is tough on staff, students and the wider community, and we are working through it,'' he says.

Current PMSA chairman, Greg Adsett.
Current PMSA chairman, Greg Adsett.

Adsett says he is opposed to an independent investigation, insisting there was no privacy breach or data theft, and that Hiley has his full support.

"We're offering an invitation to all PMSA school foundations and councils for briefings on the reports and any matters they are concerned about.''

The saga will no doubt continue.

peter.michael@news.com.au

News Corp Australia


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