Whose school is it anyway?
No stranger to controversy, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun reacted calmly when newspapers revealed the hefty donations he had received from media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying. But he responded more sharply on Wednesday to an issue close to his heart when he began a three-day hunger strike to protest against a court ruling that ended the Catholic diocese's full control over its schools.
It was a rare moment of defeat for the outspoken religious leader. But the issue at the core of the dispute will not simply vanish in the wake of the court finding. Other religious school leaders are trying, outside the courts, to overcome a serious ambiguity that they see at the heart of the 'hasty' school reform: who runs aided schools - the sponsoring body or government-created management committees?
That grey area led to a sharp conflict and a complaint to the Ombudsman this spring. Like Zen, many religious school leaders foresee more trouble ahead unless the issue is cleared up.
At the core of the dispute is the new management committee that aided schools must establish under the reforms that became law in 2004. These incorporated management committees (IMC) must include teachers, parents and alumni, with the church having the power to appoint just 60 per cent of the committee members.
Zen called the reform unconstitutional, saying the committees would lead to 'a politicisation of school management'. He tried to block the change through all legal avenues, filing for a judicial review of the bill and, when that failed, taking the case to the top court. While saddened by the result, Zen said the church must abide by the law, and the diocese backed away from a threat to stop some school sponsorships. It operates 80 aided schools in the city.
Now others are taking up the challenge, asking the question: can the new management committees actually work with sponsoring bodies? Two major sponsoring bodies - the Anglican Church and the Methodist Church of Hong Hong - are hoping for further negotiations with the Education Bureau to settle, among other key issues, the sponsors' role and their relationship with the committees and the government.
At stake is whether the committees might divert the schools from their religious focus.
Timothy Ha Wing-ho, education adviser to the Anglican archbishop of Hong Kong, said: 'What are the legal responsibilities of school-sponsoring bodies? The vision and mission of a school may not be maintained if an IMC is independent from its sponsoring body. Now we can move staff, including principals, around, but in future the IMC will be their employer. Our powers will be curtailed. We are not against school democratisation. Many alumni and parents are involved in school affairs and some are on sponsoring bodies.'
Like Zen, Ha fears a dissolution of church control over its educational 'vision and mission'. Ha stressed the importance of laying down a clear definition of the role of school sponsoring bodies.
His view is echoed by the Reverend Yuen Tin-yau, head of Methodist Hong Kong's school education division. Like the Anglican Church, schools under the auspices of his organisation already have parent, teacher and alumni representatives on their boards. Again, the ambiguity of the roles worries Yuen. 'Under the law, the Education Bureau signs service agreements with IMCs, so what is the role of sponsoring bodies?' he asks.
Brother Steve, the principal of La Salle College, is a New Zealander who has seen a similar but possibly more refined system at work in his homeland. 'The New Zealand charter model of IMC provides legislative protection for the special character of every school,' said Brother Steve, who uses no other name. The board of trustees of each school in New Zealand, secular or religious, is accountable to the charter signed with the national government.
'It is possible that an IMC in Hong Kong could change the special character of its school,' he said.
Conflicts can occur if the two parties - sponsors and management committees - fail to reach consensus on controversial issues. A classic example is the row that broke out at King's College in May over the Education Bureau's decision to cut a Form One class. The school's alumni and management committee members opposed the move, saying it would reduce the chances for achievers from humble backgrounds to enter the elite school.
But the bureau, keen to mobilise support among other government schools for its voluntary class reduction policy - to avoid school closures and laying off teachers under declining numbers entering secondary education - went ahead and imposed the decision on the school.
It acted against overwhelming opposition from concerned parents and alumni, who said the school's management committee was denied a vote. They even complained to the Ombudsman about the case, accusing Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung of maladministration.
'Similar disputes could happen at an aided school if there is no clear definition of its sponsoring body,' Yuen warned.
Ha, the Anglican adviser, asked: 'If IMC is a wonderful idea, then why are the other types of schools - government schools, private independent schools, international schools and direct subsidy scheme schools exempted?'
The two religious bodies are planning to meet education officials to discuss possible options. 'Hopefully our worries can be eased. There could be a range of possibilities, such as exemption from the IMC requirement,' said Ha.
Yuen insisted school sponsoring bodies should be allowed to retain the right to appoint school principals. 'A clear role or positioning of the bodies would give them a legitimate say over various issues,' he said. His organisation will wait and see before complying with the law and setting up IMCs.
'The fact that about 40 per cent of the schools have yet to set up IMCs show they think there are problems with the idea,' he said. 'There is still room for further negotiation with the bureau. What is legal is not necessarily reasonable. The legal battle was launched because the government was trying to implement policies too hastily.'
A spokesman for the Education Bureau declined to comment on the possibility of further negotiation, except to say that it would continue to work with schools to set up their IMCs as soon as possible.
Other major sponsoring bodies, such as Po Leung Kuk and the Hong Kong Baptist Convention, have long since chosen to abide by the law and have set up their committees. Enian Tsang, the principal of Pooi To Middle School, said the IMC at her school had functioned smoothly so far, but warned: 'If all members co-operate, the atmosphere will be good. But if there is a parent or other representatives who do not co-operate, disputes could occur. Members critical of the school can easily create trouble.
'The agenda for our meetings is longer now and we have to prepare more documents for them because of a greater demand for accountability. That is a good thing.'
Even before last week's court ruling, some Catholic schools had been preparing draft constitutions for their new management committees, which were due at the Education Bureau months ago. 'We do not want to cause civil disobedience by breaking the law,' Brother Steve said.
The amended bill initially gave schools until July 1, 2009, to set up the committees, and the deadline was later extended to July of this year. 'We are working on the technicalities of the constitution now,' said an alumnus close to the sponsoring body of one top Catholic girls' school.
Up to this month, 65 per cent of the 846 aided schools had set up or submitted draft constitutions for their management committees, according to the Education Bureau.
The number of the city's 846 aided schools that have complied with the court ruling
- 67 have handed in draft constitutions