Brindabella Christian College has argued its prospectus is aspirational and not a legal commitment to provide a certain quality of education as it battles to get parents who withdrew students from the school to pay fees.
The college took a number of parents to the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ACAT) for unpaid fees after they withdrew students from the school without giving the amount of notice stated in the enrolment agreement.
In one hearing held by teleconference in August, a couple claimed they did not owe fees for Term 3 and Term 4 of 2019 because they said terms of the enrolment agreement were unfair and the services delivered by the school had not met their expectations.
The legal representative for Brindabella Christian Education Limited, the charity which operated the college, Zoe Jones said the prospectus document did not outline contractual obligations.
“The applicant submits that that section of the prospectus and all sections of the prospectus that the defendant is relying upon as having been breached by the applicant aren’t capable of being legal terms that would bind the party because they are in effect aspirational statements,” Ms Jones said.
“They are more guiding principles rather than contractual terms.”
The school’s prospectus and website includes a statement that the “college expresses its faithfulness to families through a commitment to provide a strong biblically informed Christian education that is relevant, innovative and honest” and “to know students well, teach them well and love them well”.
The father, who cannot be named because it would identify minors, said 12 staff members involved with his children’s education had left the school last year, including the principal, business manager, deputy principal, head of the junior school, two school psychologists, learning support staff and classroom teachers.
“The school failed in so many ways to provide what is reasonably expected from their aspirational statements in the prospectus where they aspire to be a school that is responsible, that knows the students well, teaches them well and loves them well,” he said.
“You can’t know the students well when the turnover of staff is nearly 50 per cent per annum.”
Ms Jones said the respondents had not shown evidence of harm, loss or damage and that the matter was a simple debt-recovery claim.
“The respondent appears to have interpreted these provisions [in the prospectus] to mean the school has an obligation to have an all-encompassing welfare provision for the impact of administrative changes at the school. That’s not reflected in the prospectus itself and does not form part of the contract,” Ms Jones said.
“Nowhere in that contract was there an obligation for the school to inform parents in a timely manner of all of the changes at the school, specifically in relation to staff resignations or things of that nature.”
Senior Member Katavic ordered that the parents were liable to pay the outstanding fees.
The school and its board were contacted but did not respond by deadline.
Brindabella Christian College had 143 fewer students enrolled at the beginning of this year compared to 2019.
According to the enrolment agreement, parents who wish to withdraw children from the school must give notice before the end of the term before they wish to withdraw their children, meaning notice would need to be given before the school holidays at the end of Term 2 to withdraw a student in Term 4 without being liable for the final term’s fees.
A number of parents withdrew students at the beginning of Term 4, 2019. The school pursued these parents for unpaid fees through ACAT.
Brindabella Christian Education Limited has failed to lodge its 2019 financial report with the Australian Charities and Non-profit Commission which was due on August 31, 2020.
The organisation’s secretary and chief financial officer Brendan Major left his role in June this year and was replaced by Widanelage De Mel.
The board changed its legal representation from WMG Legal to HWL Ebsworth in July. The charity’s auditor also resigned in May.
Parents have previously spoken out on what they call a “culture of fear” at the college where “disloyal” employees have been allegedly targeted, parents threatened with legal action or debt collectors and students dragged into disputes.