ESF - English Schools Foundation

I won't resign, says ESF's money man

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 January, 2005, 12:00am

John Bohan defiant over 'one-sided and unfair' audit report after Legco public accounts committee hearings

The English Schools Foundation's financial controller says he has no intention of resigning over the highly critical audit report despite expectations by many that his job must be on the line.

Speaking to the South China Morning Post after the Legislative Council's public accounts committee this week completed its hearings on the audit, Mr Bohan, who is also acting chief executive and secretary, defended his 15-year record in charge of its finances.

'There is no justifiable reason why I should step down, in terms of managing and controlling the budget, hitting our targets, managing investment programmes that vastly raised the quality of facilities for our students and our discipline and management of fee levels.

'These are the areas our consumers are interested in, not scoring points on expense allowances.'

He said the report was unfair because it did not give a balanced view. 'It chose to criticise without giving credit for areas well-managed. It was a very unsympathetic treatment. I didn't think they particularly wanted to recognise the progress we were making.

'People now think the ESF is not well-managed. But the track record speaks for itself. If we were badly managed how come our fees have gone up far less than other international schools at a time when our subvention from government has gone down? I am proud of that. You can't do that if the financial management is rubbish,' he said.

He added the ESF was 'grateful' the report drew attention to things that could be improved, which it was now acting on, including governance and financial control.

But the Audit Commission had a different idea of a value for money report, said Mr Bohan. 'All they do is compare crude costs. There are no objective measures for value for money - what kids get out of the education, university admission, extra-curricular activities. It didn't go beyond the money. You would expect somehow to look at the outcomes for the money spent.'

He was particularly disappointed the report made scant reference to action already taken to reduce remuneration since the mid-1990s, including the review of benefits in 2000 and last year's 4.42 per cent pay cut.

He said costs were falling, which the auditors had not acknowledged. 'The number of staff on expatriate terms is down from 34 per cent in 1997-98 to 15 per cent,' he said. 'The average annual cost of people on new contracts is $856,596, which is 6 per cent above our nearest competitor, compared with $947,400 for all our staff.'

Pay packages are being reviewed by an independent consultant, but Education chief Arthur Li Kwok-cheung expressed his frustration in Legco that it will take four months to make recommendations on pay. The auditors had already made detailed comparisons with other international schools in Hong Kong which could be used.

But Mr Bohan insisted this was necessary. 'It has to be done carefully so it is credible and transparent and stakeholders have confidence. Rushing it is not the right way.'

Professor Li also accused the ESF of being 'grossly misleading' in claiming that the withdrawal of government subsidies would lead to a 40 per cent hike in school fees. But Mr Bohan, who made the statements two years ago, said he was speaking hypothetically, and that the 40 per cent was the outside figure.

'We would try to cut costs and increase revenue. Only in the last analysis would we look at increasing fees because we have always taken pride in being affordable to parents and accessible to the community,' he said. He added he was looking forward to forging better relations with the EMB.

Professor Li denied he had made a thinly-veiled call for Mr Bohan's resignation when he told legislators the community deserved to have someone in the ESF answerable for every dollar.

'It is not up to me to tell the ESF what to do or to say that John Bohan should go,' he said. 'That would be totally inappropriate.'