No-homework school probed after complaints pour in
Principal's failure to declare earnings and nepotism are part of education dept investigation in wake of netball row
A Cape Town primary school that shot to prominence when it scrapped homework is under investigation after “numerous” complaints from parents.
The principal of Sun Valley Primary in Fish Hoek, who has been widely lauded for his innovative educational approach, is also being investigated for allegedly failing to declare his earnings as CEO of a private school and as a lecturer who travels internationally.
Gavin Keller, 59, told Times Select last week the salary he received from Silvermine Academy, a non-profit high school that runs many of its activities on Sun Valley premises, and honorariums for speaking engagements were declared on so-called RWOPS (remunerative work outside public service) forms. This was confirmed by Jayd MacDonald, director of finance and administration at Sun Valley.
But Western Cape education department spokesperson Bronagh Hammond said in a written reply to questions from Times Select: “We could not find any records of an application from Mr Keller for RWOPS. The information has been provided to the district for further enquiry.”
Hammond confirmed that Keller’s 27-year-old son Brad, who is employed by the education department as “head innovator” at Sun Valley but listed on the school website as deputy principal, was investigated in 2017 over allegations that he sent inappropriate social media messages to mothers, teachers and pupils.
“When pursuing the matter, no evidence was forthcoming. If someone does have evidence in this regard, then we ask that they please submit it to the [department],” she said.
The investigation of the 900-pupil Sun Valley follows Keller’s row with parent Charlotte Damgaard, whom he called “untameable” in a letter banning her 11-year-old daughter from playing for school netball teams.
Since its reports on the row, Times Select has been contacted by dozens of parents, former parents and former teachers at Sun Valley who have levelled a series of allegations at the school and Keller, principal for 25 years.
Hammond said the education department had also received “numerous complaints from parents which are currently being investigated. I obviously cannot speak further on this investigation at this stage.”
Another 45 people have sent e-mails to Times Select complimenting the school and Keller after being encouraged to do so in messages on social media.
One of the complaints to Times Select was from a parent who said he received a bill for three months’ fees after removing his child from the school without giving notice.
He said: “This seems to be a money-making scam being forced on all departing pupils by the principal. There was a clause on the exit form … but I red-lined the clause out and signed. No one questioned my red-lining. Now I’m being threatened with being ‘handed over’ by the school for outstanding fees.”
Hammond said: “The circuit manager has informed the school that this is illegal. In terms of the SA Schools Act, one cannot enact such a policy at a public school.”
Other complaints were about the relationship between Sun Valley Primary and Silvermine Academy, which took in its first pupils in January 2005 after being set up in what Keller called a “public-private partnership”.
In a meeting at Sun Valley last week with Keller, former governing board chairperson Noel Frost and about eight other school staff members, Times Select asked why parents at the government school received bills from the private school for uniform items, stationery, aftercare, extramurals, music lessons and trips.
Keller said Silvermine Academy ploughed all its profits into Sun Valley. “It’s basically doing away with the old PTA, the parents’ fundraising,” he said.
“To motivate parents to add extra on top of the school fees became almost impossible. Teaching staff were running all these fundraising activities in order to generate income to buy what you needed, whereas we could rather go and do something that we are really good at, and that is education.”
Several parents told Times Select they were unsure why they received bills from Silvermine Academy and Sun Valley, but Keller said there was total transparency. Frost said accounts were audited annually on both sides and were “as clean as a whistle”.
In April, Keller said he would retire in a year’s time and become chairperson of the academy, but he told Times Select he had changed his mind after being asked by the governors to stay on.
He said the constitution of Silvermine Academy meant “it belongs to the current community of Sun Valley. So if I step out of here I’ve got nothing to do with Silvermine Academy, there’s nothing in it for me in terms of the long-term benefits. So it’s not as though we’re building a school down the road that I’m going to have shares in, and therefore that’s going to be my pension.”
Silvermine Academy’s high school, with 120 pupils, operates in three houses adjoining Sun Valley. Its other activities – a preschool with 125 pupils, a music academy with more than 300 and an aftercare that caters for 130 – operate in Sun Valley premises for which it pays rent.
Hammond said: “The district director has asked for a report on [the relationship between Silvermine Academy and Sun Valley]. An official has been assigned to deal with these complaints. Sun Valley is a public school and therefore has to adhere to the SA Schools Act.”
Many of the complaints sent to Times Select relate to alleged nepotism. As well as Brad Keller at Sun Valley, Gavin Keller’s wife, Heather, and daughter-in-law, Catherine, work at Silvermine Academy. Heather Keller was in the meeting with Times Select last week.
Keller and Frost said allegations of nepotism in the appointment of Brad Keller were investigated by the education department and the forensics unit in the Western Cape premier’s office, and found to be without foundation.
Keller said that although he had recused himself for the selection process when his son’s name was sent to the school as a nominee for a vacancy, “I think there’s a lot of very good examples in the business world of family businesses that have done exceptionally well. This is a public school to which the state does not contribute anything financially except 23 of the 196 employees. This is a unique school, and therefore you need the right people.”
Frost said the school governing body nominated Brad Keller as the best candidate “based on very strict criteria set out beforehand”.
He added: “Our first priority is what is best for the organisation, who is the best candidate. Best man for the position in the interest of the kids. If criticism comes as a result of that, we know we have to deal with it. I think it would be very unfair to shoot someone down just because of a surname connotation when they are the best candidate.”
Speaking about the allegations of inappropriate WhatsApp and Instagram messages from Brad Keller, Frost said he had conducted a lengthy investigation. “But there’s still no evidence, there’s still no proof. In the absence of that, the rumours have destroyed the lives of a young married couple, and I think that is grossly unfair.”
Keller said the then-chairperson of the governing body arrived at his home at 10.30pm on a Sunday to tell him about the allegations.
“I said: ‘Let’s get in the car and go right now to Fish Hoek police station’. He said: ‘It’s your son,’ and I said: ‘I don’t employ my son, I employ people’. He said, ‘calm down, we have no evidence’. I said: ‘Well I am stepping out of this, and I leave it to you to go and investigate it, and I want it investigated fully and I want you to make it open to the entire staff’.
“If you are going to be in a position at this school and you abuse the position, you must face the full might of the law.”
Keller rejected claims that his language in letters to parents was unprofessional. In one letter seen by Times Select, he accused a mother of being unloving and “putting her daughter through trauma … each and every day of her life”.
In another, he said a parent’s objection to his decision on the colour of his son’s shoes “places you at the heart of any anxiety experienced by [your son]. Isn’t it just so easy to blame others when you are at fault?”
Another letter said the “fuss” a parent had made guaranteed their child “massive failure in adulthood” and showed they were “systematically destroying” her.
Keller said writing such letters was part of his job as a principal “when we have been through all the steps and [parents] will not see another perspective”.
Talking about a pupil who had been removed from the school by his parents, he told Times Select: “This little boy has been raised by two very, very, very unhappy parents who do not know how to handle him.”