A former Milingimbi school principal used more than half a million dollars intended for the education of Indigenous children to travel and dine out with friends and family, and also hired family members without permission, the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption has found in a new report.
Jennifer Sherrington was found to have engaged in corrupt conduct that spanned more than four years that also included falsifying student attendance figures in an attempt to secure more government funding and misusing debit cards.
The ICAC found she had spent $507,796 on travel which she claimed was for “other school business” and had charged it under a cost code meant for emergency and unforeseen expenses.
Commissioner Ken Fleming found in some years Ms Sherrington spent no money on book room supplies for “one of the most remote and disadvantaged schools in Australia” but travelled over 18 times, chartering flights, staying at hotels with family and friends and going on shopping sprees.
“Funds were diverted from educational resources intended for the poorest cohort of students in the country for Ms Sherrington’s personal enrichment,” Mr Fleming said.
“Ms Sherrington derived benefits including extended travel to and accommodation in Darwin, motor vehicle hire for personal shopping, quality dining and fast food purchases for herself, family members and friends.
“On numerous occasions Ms Sherrington chartered flights instead of travelling on commercial flights, which affected the school’s operational budget.”
Similar allegations at other schools suggest fraud may be ‘systemic’: ICAC report
Mr Fleming’s investigation also found Jennifer Sherrington employed four family members at different times “on generous contract rates” without the necessary permission or disclosing conflicts of interest.
“This included her partner and her nephew, who was paid to boost attendance during census weeks,” the investigation found. It was determined Ms Sherrington’s nephew was paid $500 a day.
“She allocated one family member a government employee house while he was not employed by the Northern Territory Government. Over $270,000 was spent on salaries for her family members.”
Mr Fleming called on the Department of Education, which he said had assisted in the investigation, to further investigate whether similar conduct was occurring at other schools across the NT.
“Lack of adequate oversight of regional and remote operations could lead to corruption running unchecked,” he said.
“Given both the disadvantage of the school and the community, and the requirement for budget repair across NT Government agencies, it is critical that the Department of Education determine whether this is a singular incident or whether it is systemic.
“The OICAC has received similar allegations of fraudulent student numbers and behaviour relating to schools and is concerned that this may be systemic. This investigation also finds that there is a real risk that this conduct may not be a singular incident … and that such conduct by principals and/or DOE staff may be systemic due to the current devolved schooling model, the autonomy of the principal and the ease with which records can be altered with little or no oversight.”
The report also noted the Gunner Government’s policy to introduce “community-led schools” in remote communities.
Ms Sherrington was afforded natural justice as part of the investigation.