Who's pulling the strings?
At Hong Kong International School, with the most expensive tuition in the city, the head of school serves only at the approval of a church council more than 12,000 kilometres away in the American Midwest.
At the Chinese International School, the board of governors sacked more than half the members of the school's foundation and may face possible legal action over the action.
They are two of the city's top international schools - the elite of the elite schools and also the most expensive. Unlike the English Schools Foundation, most top international schools are private, non-profit and receive no government subsidy. This means they enjoy virtual independence from public oversight. More than a decade of reforms for local and ESF schools have meant nothing for these institutions.
But despite their deserved reputations for academic excellence, questions are being raised about their governance and accountability, as shown by controversies at CIS and HKIS.
The row at CIS began a year ago when its board of governors sacked 26 of more than 40 members of the school's foundation, including co-founder Nelly Fung.
Those dismissed were some of Hong Kong's most influential figures, including Victor Fung Kwok-king of Li & Fung, the global sourcing company; Peter Woo Kwong-ching, chairman of Wheelock and Wharf; an official representative of the Jockey Club Charities Trust, which provided HK$70 million for the construction of the school's campus in Braemar Hill; Selwyn Mar, former president of the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants; Professor Felice Lieh Mak, head of the Medical Council and former chairwoman of the English Schools Foundation; and former chief secretary David Akers-Jones.
Most of those who were removed accepted the board's action, but Nelly Fung and Mar are determined to fight back.
'The board resolved that the dismissed members be replaced by existing members of the board. Here lays the devil,' Mar wrote in an unpublished letter to the South China Morning Post this month. 'By removing the non-board members, the current board members also become foundation members. The move by the board flies in the face of common sense and good corporate governance.'
Mar added: 'At this time, a court action has not been ruled out.'
The CIS management said that it had the right to dismiss the members and that it was done in the interest of the school. It said there were too many foundation members who were no longer involved in school affairs.
HKIS is mired in controversy almost the opposite of that at CIS. In this case, it was the sponsoring body that overruled the school's board.
Head of school David Condon, who was approved by the board, was rejected last year by the governing body, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS), because he is not Lutheran.
Now some members of the HKIS community are questioning who really runs the place.
Condon was selected after a lengthy search for a new leader, after five-year head of school Richard Mueller retired in July last year. The board of managers looked at more than 60 candidates before deciding on the then-associate head of school.
But the school's operating agreement requires that heads of school must be Lutheran. HKIS has never had a non-Lutheran head of school.
The LCMS, based in St Louis, Missouri, retains final say on appointing HKIS' heads of school and dealing in property or loans worth more than HK$10 million.
The LCMS also owns Concordia International School Shanghai and Concordia International School Hanoi.
The governing body would not waive the requirement for Condon, even though the board was mostly composed of members of the Church of All Nations in Hong Kong, part of the LCMS denomination.
'Some, perhaps many, members of the community felt disempowered by the process, perhaps misled, and that the board has very little power to select the head of school,' a source close to the situation said.
One current parent, who has been with the school for more than a decade, said: 'This left many of us in the HKIS community bitter, angry, confused as to who actually does govern the school, and convinced that the HKIS board is powerless to effect one of its most fundamental responsibilities.'
Condon, who is Christian but not Lutheran, remained interim head for 2010-11, until the new school year began in August.
After a second search, an American school administrator named Kevin Dunning was handed the reins from a list of 97 other Lutheran educators. The new search committee included three board members and three LCMS appointees, whereas the initial committee that selected Condon was made up only of HKIS board members.
'The new head of school seems to be a fine fellow, but he comes out of that LCMS world,' the parent said. 'He is LCMS, but he has absolutely no international experience, and I'm very concerned about that.'
Dunning was executive director of Faith Lutheran Jr/Sr High School in Las Vegas, the largest Lutheran school in the United States, but he has never worked outside the US. Condon - who subsequently left HKIS to be headmaster at the Canadian Academy in Kobe, Japan - has worked at Taipei American School and the International School Yangon in Myanmar, and speaks Putonghua fluently.
Abbi DeLessio, chairwoman of the board of managers, defended the choice of Dunning: 'Kevin, who has travelled extensively, has worked throughout his career with students and administrators with diverse ethnic, linguistic and socio-economic backgrounds.'
David Birner, interim co-executive director of the Office of International Mission at the LCMS, said: 'He is an exceptional leader and proven K-12 educator whom we expect will serve the Hong Kong international community for years.'
The incident points to two larger questions. One: who really pulls the strings at the prestigious school - the board in Hong Kong or the church in the US? And how transparent is their relationship?
Indeed, an accreditation of HKIS by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in April last year found that relations between the two should be clarified 'as soon as humanly possible', because the current situation 'undermines the leadership of the school and sets a poor example for the rest of the community'.
DeLessio said the accreditation agency's recommendations would be completed by the 2012-13 school year, but she declined to say what changes were being discussed.
The second issue is how religious - and specifically, how close to the church - does the school community want HKIS to be.
'I believe some people question whether the LCMS truly supports the mission of the school, particularly the part that reads 'grounded in the Christian faith, respecting the spiritual lives of all'. The LCMS is very conservative and dogmatic in its views,' the source said.
Those views include the idea that the pope is a 'false teacher' and the Antichrist, and that certain events in the Bible, such as Jonah spending three days in the belly of a whale, are to be taken literally.
'The vast majority of us, we don't send our kids to that school because it's Lutheran,' the parent, who is Christian but not a Lutheran, said. 'The LCMS is very conservative. Those are not my values at all.' According to the school's website, 56 per cent of its pupils are Christian.
The operating agreement between the LCMS and HKIS, a legal document that lays down the relationship between the two bodies, states that the majority of school administrators must be members of the Church of All Nations. The board of managers currently consists of 12 members, including Dunning and Dale Koehneke, a pastor at Repulse Bay's Church of All Nations.
The agreement says: 'HKIS will offer a programme of Christian education and will serve the community in a manner consistent with the teachings of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.'
It continues: 'The school will function under the leadership of a Christian administration. The head of school shall be a member of the LCMS, and a majority of the senior administrators shall be members of the LCMS or members in good standing in a congregation served by the LCMS.'
But DeLessio insisted that the board of managers shapes the school's long-term strategy.
Of the LCMS, she said: 'They're not involved in the running of HKIS. That needs to be made really clear.' But she conceded that the LCMS did have the final say in determining the head of school, whose job is to run HKIS from day to day.
She said that although the Church of All Nations is a Lutheran church, members were not necessarily Lutheran. 'The majority of the board has to be members of the Church of All Nations, [but] that doesn't dictate the viewpoint that they're gong to bring to the board.'
Knowing who calls the shots at the school is an especially pertinent issue, especially with a HK$980 million redevelopment of the lower primary school site set to begin next June. The school is among the most expensive in Hong Kong, with the annual tuition fees reaching HK$180,000.
A parent of a former pupil said: 'I think the current non-LCMS members of the board have the school's best interests at heart. The other members are clearly conflicted - caring as much about the LCMS' mission in Asia as they do about the school. The issue is not so much about the current cast of characters; it is about the future.
'The school is not 'better' for the fact that it has this relationship with the LCMS. It is [better] in spite of that relationship, in my opinion.
'I think it is a point of difference with other Hong Kong schools that it includes a Christian message of tolerance and service to others - that is beneficial to the school community. But this requirement that a certain number of teachers come from backward Midwest Lutheran schools hamstrings the quality of the education for all.'
The amount of the grant, in HK dollars, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod provided in 1965 to set up HKIS
Hong Kong's most expensive schools (based on available data):
Hong Kong International School - up to HK$180,000 per year
Chinese International School - up to HK$164,000
Independent Schools Foundation Academy - up to HK$160,000
Kellett School, The British International School in Hong Kong - up to HK$138,000
German Swiss International School - up to HK$130,150