Tue | Sep 28, 2021

Education ministry maintains block on basic CAP, COS info

Published:Sunday | May 16, 2021 | 12:13 AMJovan Johnson - Senior Staff Reporter

The education ministry has blocked the release of basic information that could provide more details on how more than $7 billion in vocational programmes for students was administered and spent since 2010.

The Sunday Gleaner has been denied access to information relating to the Centre of Occupational Studies (COS) and the Career Advancement Programme (CAP) – the two initiatives under investigation after this newspaper revealed major conflicts of interest over their leadership and expenditures.

Last Thursday, the ministry advised that an internal review did not result in any change to the requests made under the Access to Information Act.

The first ATI request was made on March 1, and the ministry’s response received March 23.

Of the nine requests made about the COS, information was only provided for two – the centre’s expenditure report for 2017-2020 and the budget for 2019-2020.

Documents were requested for all contracts entered into by the centre with any government or non-governmental entity since its establishment.

There was also a separate request for a list of all institutions or individuals with which the centre had partnerships.

On both counts, the ministry denied access, saying the documents were exempted under Section 17 of the ATI Act, which said disclosure “would constitute an actionable breach of confidence”.

The Sunday Gleaner was also denied access to records that would identify all the persons who have held senior positions at the centre since it was established and the associated salaries.

Despite being paid from public funds, the ministry said those details were exempted from disclosure, citing Section 22 of the ATI law, which said a public authority shall not grant access to an official document if it would “involve the unreasonable disclosure of information relating to the personal affairs of any person”.

WITHHOLDING RECORDS

The education ministry also did not release records requested on the centre’s enrolment numbers, the documents authorising COS’s establishment and details of payments made to educational institutions.

The ministry said it could not provide access to those documents because the “centre crisis” was not under its responsibility, referring to one of the requests which erroneously included word “crisis” in asking about COS.

However, the word appeared in the request about the employment history of the COS, which the ministry said was exempt from disclosure because it concerned person’s private affairs.

The internal review was requested on April 13 and the ministry responded last Thursday, noting that following an assessment by its legal department, “responses were provided for all questions” and the “results remain the same”.

Two months ago, a similar situation developed with the commissioner of police’s employment contract, but Prime Minister Andrew Holness and his deputy, Dr Horace Chang, insisted that taxpayers had a right to such information.

The Office of the Services Commissions, which had denied access to the contract, later reversed its position as public pressure mounted.

In addition to the April 13 internal review, The Sunday Gleaner submitted a new ATI request that day seeking additional details on, among other things, the COS, CAP, contract payments to suppliers and payment history to the Joint Committee for Tertiary Education (JCTE).

The ministry also responded last Thursday noting that “the information you requested for CAP and COS documents cannot be made available to you” because of the audit of those programmes requested by Fayval Williams, the minister of education, youth and information.

Williams announced on April 19 that she asked Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis to audit the programmes following The Sunday Gleaner’s April 9 investigative report, which highlighted a series of conflicts of interests in the operations of the CAP, COS, the JCTE and the Cecil Cornwall-led Western Hospitality Institute, a private institution.

Before a restructuring exercise last year, CAP and COS were the education ministry’s multibillion-dollar flagship programmes developed to provide certification in vocational areas, such as hospitality, to thousands of children who left grade 11 without qualifications.

FUNDED BY HEART/NSTA TRUST

CAP was established in 2010 and has been under the ministry’s direct control since 2013, while COS was set up in July 2016 to offer associate degrees to CAP graduates. They have been funded by money from the HEART/NSTA Trust.

Sunday Gleaner calculations suggest that at least $7 billion has been spent on the programmes under which schools are paid based on the number of students they are allotted.

The WHI was the largest financial beneficiary of the two programmes at the same time the institution’s president led CAP’s oversight committee.

Cornwall, the ministry has acknowledged, was the architect of the COS and has admitted influencing appointments and direction.

CAP and COS’s staff structure, over time, became revolving doors for WHI employees.

It has since emerged that WHI, which got 90 per cent of its revenue from the education ministry, is being considered for sale or closure because of ministry changes which have seen a cut in per student funding.

CAP and COS were directly supervised by the chief education officers, who were Dr Grace McLean (2009-2019) and since February 2019, Dr Kasan Troupe. They would have to approve all major decisions.

McLean is now acting permanent secretary, the chief accounting officer of the ministry who will oversee and approve the ministry’s response to the audit of programmes she managed.

However, the Holness administration has played down concerns that the situation represents a conflict of interest and McLean should be asked to recuse herself. Her substantive post is chief education officer.

The Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal (JAMP), a local anti-corruption watchdog, is not satisfied, arguing that McLean’s recusal “would help to set a very positive example for good governance”.

JAMP said especially because the audit is not a routine one but was triggered by “publicly reported concerns … those circumstances would occasion recusal by said officer to avoid any possibility of doubt about the process and to enhance public confidence”.

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm.com

Sunday Gleaner ATI questions – March 1, 2021

1. Copies of all full and signed contracts, agreements or pacts entered into by the Centre of Occupational Studies with any government or non-governmental entity since its establishment

2. Document outlining all institutions or individuals with whom the centre has entered partnerships or contractual arrangements since its establishment

3. Copies of all budgetary allocations made to the centre since its establishment

4. Documents of financial and income and expenditure statements to date

5. Copies of all audit reports, reviews or any assessment documents since the centre was established

6. Document outlining the senior leadership of the centre since its establishment along with associated individualized emoluments (including those who may have held senior posts but are no longer associated with the entity; indicate when any such individual may have left); also include any consultant or adviser employed by the centre crisis*

7. Document outlining the total number of students enrolled since the centre was established

8. Copy of document(s) authorising the establishment of the centre

9. Copies of documents outlining payments made by the centre to any educational institution since its establishment

*The word ‘crisis’ at the end of question 6 was erroneously included