Government urged to fast-track education board investigation

Board chief’s decision to retire prompts calls for accelerated inquiry into its spending

Minister for Education Richard Bruton. The Department of Education has been urged to fast-track its investigation into spending at an education board. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Minister for Education Richard Bruton. The Department of Education has been urged to fast-track its investigation into spending at an education board. File photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

The Department of Education has been urged to fast-track its investigation into spending at an education board, following a decision by the board’s chief executive to retire at the end of this year.

An audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) into accounts for Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board (KWETB) has flagged a series of issues relating to potential conflicts of interest and other concerns.

The department announced on October 4th that it had appointed an investigator to examine these matters. The investigation is due to be completed early next year.

KWETB’s chief executive Sean Ashe surprised colleagues last Friday when he informed them he will retire at the end of this year.

During a private session of KWETB’s board meeting this week, members decided to send a letter to the Department of Education urging it to fast-track the investigation in light of his retirement.

Wicklow-based Social Democrat councillor Jennifer Whitmore said she wanted the department’s investigation accelerated.

“We want to see due process, but this is clearly a time-sensitive exercise,” she said.

Board members were also informed during the private session that Mr Ashe was not in attendance as he was travelling to Abu Dhabi for a 10-day period for a conference, despite a request from the board’s chair that he remain at home to deal with the controversy.

Mr Ashe, who was unavailable for comment on Thursday, is attending the WorldSkills conference.

He was nominated to attend by the KWETB’s parent body, Education and Training Boards Ireland.

Mr Ashe is understood to have told the board’s chair that the event had been organised a year ago. He is understood to have said that he has co-operated fully with the audit so far.

Following the meeting, Fine Gael councillor Fiona McLoughlin-Healy said she was concerned that correspondence relating to Mr Ashe’s whereabouts was not discussed during the public section of the board meeting.

“I am perturbed by the decision to deviate from the standard practice of reading this type of letter into correspondence at the public board meeting,” she said.

“No one knew where the CEO was and no one informed those present at the public meeting why the CEO was not there.”

In private

The board’s legal adviser earlier informed board members that they had voted for the discussion relating to the C&AG’s audit to be held in private, which meant any further discussion relating to the investigation should also be held in private.

The C&AG audit has flagged issues relating to the delivery of building projects, rental properties and the use of a pool of vehicles.

In a statement released this week, KWETB said it had co-operated fully with the C&AG and the department over recent months regarding the audit. It has said it will not comment further until the investigation is completed.

The board, which has a turnover of €116 million, is responsible for running further education and training courses in both Co Kildare and Co Wicklow, as well as a number of primary and secondary schools.

Minister for Education Richard Bruton has appointed an external investigator to examine the board’s functions in relation to “public procurement, usage and disposal of assets and propriety matters”.

The investigator will be former president of Institute of Technology, Sligo, Richard Thorn.

Mr Thorn has been tasked with identifying any “lacunae, inconsistencies or insufficient clarity” in the responses provided by the board in relation to a number of issues.