Staff at private school denied pay, as board fight heads to court

About 100 staff at a private school in Preston have had their pay withheld, due to a power struggle among members of Melbourne’s Islamic community that is headed to court.

Staff at East Preston Islamic College have not been paid, due to a dispute between current and former school board members that is headed to the Supreme Court for mediation.

Dozens of teachers and support staff at East Preston Islamic College have submitted pleas for financial hardship payments after the school failed to pay their salaries last week, citing a board dispute.

The dispute between current and former school board members, which does not involve any of the staff who are being denied their income, is headed for mediation in the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

The union for non-government school staff is also pursuing the school’s board through the Fair Work Commission and the Federal Court, arguing that staff are unlawfully being made to pay the price in a power struggle they have no part in.

“Our members just want to do the job they love at the school they love, but not surprisingly they expect to get paid to do so,” Independent Education Union deputy secretary David Brear said.

A new school board was elected in October, sweeping everyone on the old board from their positions.

The school, which has about 800 students, is governed by the Islamic Co-ordinating Council of Victoria, a community-based, not-for-profit organisation that owns the school.

Staff at East Preston Islamic College (EPIC) were told by principal Neil Hasankolli last week that he could not pay their salaries due to a dispute between current and former members of the school board.

In an email seen by The Age, Hasankolli apologised to affected staff and wrote: “Please be advised that there is a mediation on Tuesday to resolve issues between the previous and current EPIC board and hopefully your pay will be processed next week.”

Fifty-four members of staff applied to the board for a hardship loan last week, but not all of them were successful.

In a separate letter to staff, board secretary Fouad Hassan said he was hopeful staff would be paid following mediation.

He blamed members of the old board, claiming they had clung onto control of the school bank accounts despite being voted off the board more than three months ago.

“Unfortunately, none of the old board members are willing to do the necessary obligations needed for the new board to take control,” he wrote.

“It is an offence under the Corporations Act to maintain their position as EPIC directors when they are not entitled to.”

But Brear said that the union had been in lengthy discussions with a member of the current board, who is in a position to authorise the payments to staff, but refuses to do so.

“This refusal to pay hard-working staff is being used to gain leverage by one side over the other,” Brear said.

“It’s hardly a positive way to start the school year as the staff look forward to welcoming back students, not knowing when they will next be paid.”

The union has filed an urgent dispute at the Fair Work Commission, which is due to go to conciliation next Monday and will also initiate action in the Federal Court, Brear said.

“Alienating your own staff at a time of acute teacher shortage seems a reckless strategy to me, and the IEU is also concerned as to whether funds that should be spent on student needs are instead being squandered on lawyers’ fees,” he said.

Though EPIC is a non-government school, almost 90 per cent of its total funding comes from federal and state government grants, financial documents show. Those grants amounted to $14.28 million in 2021.

Staff returned to school on Friday and most students at the kindergarten-year 12 school are due to return on Tuesday.

Fouad Hassan said he could not comment as the matter was with the board’s lawyers.

Neil Hasankolli did not respond to written questions.

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