Almost 18 months after being temporarily stood down by the Department of Education and Training, the principal of Bendigo South East College has resigned.
Ernie Fleming is stepping away, but says he will not give up fighting for the “respect, support and protection of principals needed to carry out the transformation required to make education more relevant to the current and future needs of young people”.
The department announced in January 2017, Mr Fleming would not return for the start of the academic year.
The length of the investigation has since frustrated many in the school community, with former staff, students and others working in recent months to pressure the department to hasten a resolution. In March, education minister James Merlino told the department to resolve the issue with urgency.
Mr Fleming’s lawyer David Shier has released a statement for and by his client, which indicated much of the investigation related to allegations of inappropriate practice and procedure. However, the statement raised concerns about the subsequent investigation process.
“It became evident that balance and procedural fairness were to be wholly denied to him,” the statement read. “Recent attempts to plead the inherent unfairness and injustice of the process … have been shunned.”
Mr Fleming said he had “done everything possible to meet the claims by the department but without access to all the relevant materials only a biased and unsound decision can be made by the department”.
Public statement for and by Ernie Fleming, released through his legal representative David Schier:
Mr Ernie Fleming the longstanding principal of the Bendigo South East College has today resigned from the Department of Education and Training.
Mr Fleming was the driver and innovative leader of the creation of the College under the Bendigo Education Plan.
In addition to being the principal of the college and finding time to teach English to year 10 students he oversaw the expenditure of $40m under the plan.
He introduced highly popular and successful programs such as the Academy of Creative Arts and the Athlete Development Program.
Both programs boosted not only the artistic and sporting achievements of the participating students but also their academic results.
Within three years a college designed for 1200 had 1500 students in attendance.
Parents voted with confidence as college enrolments rose quickly. Students travelled considerable distances to attend there.
He oversaw the implementation of a number of support programs that added value to the life of a school student.
Mr Fleming was a teacher for 41 years and was a principal for 19 of them. His wife Karen was also committed to the college in her role of supporting students and in administration.
Mr Fleming had the very strong backing of the school council and the wider school community exhibited confidence in the educative direction and results obtained by the college.
With a dedicated staff of 130 teachers and support persons Mr Fleming was able to pursue progressive and innovative policies that were popular but also saw the college as achieving the highest comparative results by its students of all schools in the area.
However the agitation at departmental level of a minority that resisted change caused the head office in Melbourne to conduct an inquiry into the college and in particular Mr Fleming's role as the college leader.
Without any prior dialogue from the department, in late January 2017 Mr Fleming was stood down and was temporarily replaced by Dale Pearce from Bendigo Senior Secondary College.
Through the latter half of 2017 and into 2018 the department conducted its own investigation.
Much of the investigation related to allegations of inappropriate practice and procedure which ensured that it had a primary focus on documentation created over the previous four years and more.
The investigation was under the overall direction of the section of the department headed by a Melbourne based regional services secretary.
The regional services secretary had received a delegation of authority from the Secretary of the department.
Mr Fleming has never been afforded the opportunity to meet and confer with (the regional services secretary).
In seeking to fully address the various matters put to Mr Fleming repeated written requests were made by him for access to all his records reports and files both hard copy and electronic.
Mr Fleming was assured by the representative of the department that he would be afforded procedural fairness so that any findings made would have balance.
It became evident that balance and procedural fairness were to be wholly denied to him.
Recent attempts to plead the inherent unfairness and injustice of the process to (the department) have been shunned.
"I have done everything possible to meet the claims by the department but without access to all the relevant materials only a biased and unsound decision can be made by the department," Mr Fleming said.
"Basic procedural fairness has been denied which means that there can never be any justice in this flawed decision making process" he said.
Despite giving the better part of my life to education with equal measures of passion commitment and at times flair, I have come to realise that my integrity and achievements matter the most. I step away from public education with my head held high comforted by the knowledge that I have directly helped educate thousands of young people to the very best of their ability.Ernie Fleming
"Despite giving the better part of my life to education with equal measures of passion commitment and at times flair, I have come to realise that my integrity and achievements matter the most.
“I step away from public education with my head held high comforted by the knowledge that I have directly helped educate thousands of young people to the very best of their ability."
Mr Fleming said that as principal he had the support and confidence of the vast majority of the equally dedicated teachers and support staff together with the school council presidents and members.
"I warmly thank my many colleagues, the parents who believed in our processes and the wider community,” he said.
"I wish the new leadership team the strength and wisdom to stay focused on inspiring students to success in a complex and challenging political environment.
“I will continue to campaign for the respect support and protection of principals need to carry out the transformation required to make education more relevant to the current and future needs of young people as outlined again by Gonski 2.0 last week."
A spokesman for the Department of Education and Training said that as the investigation was drawing to a close, Ernie Fleming tendered his resignation.
“This occurred on Sunday, May 27. We acknowledge that this has taken some time to resolve as the Department has worked to ensure due process and to allow for all issues to be given necessary consideration.
Due to the privacy requirements, we are unable to provide further comments.”
The investigation is expected to be completed before the end of May.