Fight has just started, says axed principal

By Roshan Abrahams

Axed Heathfield High principal Wesley Neumann has vowed that the “fight has just started” as he weighs up his options to appeal or to take the case to a “higher authority” before Thursday November 5..

Last year the Western Cape Education Department called Mr Neumann to appear before a disciplinary hearing to face six charges of alleged misconduct (“Principal’s future pending”, Southern Mail, October 7 2020).

This after Mr Neumann and other principals and teachers had voiced their concerns about the reopening of schools before and during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

They were also concerned about adequate provision of personal protection equipment (PPE) and the improbability of social distancing because of class sizes.

His disciplinary hearing lasted 25 days, during which parents, teachers and learners protested in his defence. He was found guilty of all the charges on October 13.

Last Wednesday he was advised that he had been dismissed with immediate effect.

Speaking to Southern Mail this week, Mr Neumann noted that the six charges he had been found guilty of, were related to instructions issued during the first wave of Covid-19 infections, concerning the reopening of the school.

While Heathfield High had not been closed, he said, parents had made the decision not to send their children to school.

Ironically, he added, “a few days later president Cyril Ramaphosa (declared) all schools to be closed”.

Mr Neumann believes that while many other schools had faced similar issues, “I have been singled out”.

“I was looking at the best interest of the children,” he said.

“The SGB (school governing body) made the decision to consider the safety of the children. I carried out what the SGB decided. The (WCED) did not agree with the SGB.”

He said as principal he had a duty towards the community and the parents, and that the WCED did not understand the dynamics of the community.

When asked what his reaction was to the guilty verdict he said. “I was disappointed, but it was to be expected. The whole process was irregular involving the Presiding Officer but we all have the human right to a fair hearing.”

The department’s “determination to make this point, made them make a lot of mistakes. They (WCED) spent R800 000 on this case, just to make an example that if you ‘don’t as I say’ and start challenging them, you become a threat.”

Mr Neumann said the teachers’ morale was low.

“They feel they are not appreciated, even before this case. (The incident) had a big impact on the staff and learners as well.”

Mr Neumann said the 25 days of the disciplinary hearing had been “a lonely and taxing process and the attack drains you emotionally and mentally”.

“However,” he said, “I appreciated all the support from the parents, community and staff which meant a lot.”

WCED communications director Bronagh Hammond said the presiding officer had found that “dismissal would be the only reasonable and appropriate sanction after a review of all the charges cumulatively and the relevant authority regarding dismissal”.

“Mr Neumann has been informed of his right to appeal this sanction in terms of Section 9 of Schedule 2 of the Act. This must be done within five working days after having received the sanction,” she said.

“The claims that this was not a ‘fair process’ is part of an ongoing campaign to discredit what was a fair process – whereby the employee was given a fair opportunity to represent his case. This was also addressed in the hearing and we accept the presiding officer’s judgment that the employer had followed a fair procedure.

“The WCED will not entertain the narrative that there was bias by the presiding officer. This is an independent presiding officer who has years of experience. Her judgment reflects case law, taking into account the extensive testimony provided. She was also not ‘hand-picked’.

“There have been many inaccurate statements made regarding this case, which do not address the actual charges in which the employee was found guilty of.”