Since our article yesterday (27 September) on the problems at the struggling Beijing BISS International School (BISS), we have been contacted by several former teachers, who wanted to give their perspective on the school’s difficulties.
“Mismanagement and governance have been at the forefront of the school’s failings,” said Amy Lithimane, secondary school art teacher at BISS from 2016-2018. “Our lost accreditations to CIS and WASC were solely due to governance with unpaid salaries, taxes, and illegally enrolling students who do not hold foreign passports. It had nothing to do with the teaching quality or curriculum, which were above board except for our facilities and tech offerings.
“There is an environment of mistrust and lack of transparency from the owners and the board,” Lithimane told us. “When we went two months with unpaid salaries last year, no one from the top cared to notify us ahead of time or gave reasons. Payday simply came and went with no explanations. The board has never responded to repeated signed letters the faculty has sent within the last two years pleading for answers and action. Our only point of contact was our Head of School, Mr. Eplin. The answers we were given were always non-answers. There was no clear communication or respect afforded to us.”
“We just kept getting the same old tired answer: ‘the school is going through financial difficulties and the owner is working to get everyone paid,’” said Nicole Son-Culbreth, another former BISS teacher. “Yet the money never came. Meanwhile, we were struggling without salaries, or supplies for our students. There were days we had no toilet paper in the school, no soap in the bathrooms, and no pencils for our students. We had to start bringing in our own supplies from home.”
Despite the shortages of essential items and staff going unpaid, the school launched expensive ventures such as building a new sports dome costing “millions of RMB”.
“I saw lots of contradictions of a school that claimed they needed to clamp down on finances, but strange decisions to go forward with certain unnecessary projects,” Lithimane said.
These projects were dogged by complaints of unpaid bills, according to Son-Culbreth.
“The builders for the sports dome blocked the entrance to the school one day, because they said they weren’t paid for the sports dome and wouldn’t finish the floors until they were paid. Rather than pay them, the school hired another company to finish the job.
“This pattern has been seen in the two years I was at BISS. The school would default on a payment, and rather than pay, they would switch companies. It happened with the guards, the bus company, and with the copiers. One day there were new guards, another day, there was a new bus, and we were told that there was a ‘disagreement’ with the old bus company. That was it.”
The dome appears to have been an attempt to turn round the school’s fortunes by improving facilities to compete with other international schools.
“They were ‘trying to keep up with the Joneses’,” said another former teacher, who asked to remain anonymous. “But they didn’t have the number of students to be able to spend money on the dome. They were trying to operate off a big budget when they didn’t have a big budget.”
However everyone we spoke to was clear that poor financial management at the school was a significant cause of declining pupil numbers.
“I know for a fact that some students left because of the financial problems at the school,” Son-Culbreth said. “Some parents never received their deposits back, and graduation almost didn’t happen my first year because of an unpaid bill from the Hilton the previous year.”
“The students know and feel something is wrong,” Lithimane said, “and that the school has been going downhill for some time.”
Perhaps most shockingly, it is alleged that money raised by students for good causes went missing in the school’s safekeeping. Over RMB 17,000 raised for the “Roots and Shoots” project, to tackle deforestation in Inner Mongolia, was put in the school’s safe but then could not be found. As a result the students missed out on an opportunity to visit the project and plant their own forest.
The teachers we spoke to were unanimous in their pride in the faculty’s professionalism and dedication, but wish now they had spoken out earlier.
“We were afraid to tell the parents for a long time what was going on, because we were afraid they would pull their kids from the school and we wouldn’t be able to get our money if the school closed.” Son-Culbreth said. “Of course we know better now.”
Visa issues were also a concern, according to Lithimane.
“Teachers wanted desperately to take action last year, but we couldn’t agree because many people felt like they were taken hostage, between wanting to safely transfer visas to new schools and not wanting to be singled out and punished.”
“One co-worker described it as modern day slavery,” a teacher told us anonymously. “To consistently work and provide the very best for students, smile when hungry and hurt, and not to get paid.”
The school’s CEO, Mr. Elvis Tan, has promised to pay outstanding salaries for this school year only by 5pm today (Friday Sept 28), but teachers are skeptical.
“I can only wait for the Friday deadline to pass, but I don’t have any hope that payments will go through,” Lithimane said. “We’ve had promises of deadlines before, but they come and go with no remuneration. As a faculty we have to ask, where does the money go?”
beijingkids spoke to the school’s Principal, Mr. Randal Eplin. He denied reports that Tan has disappeared, and believes that the 5pm deadline will be met.
“I am in touch with Mr. Tan,” he told us. “He’s saying he continues to try to make good on this situation.”
Eplin said he understood the strong feelings among present and former staff.
“I don’t blame them,” he said. “When you have highly professional people, who have given blood, sweat, and tears for the school, and then they don’t get paid, it produces a high level of frustration and anger. I don’t like treating people this way, I’ve been 30 years in education.”
He told us that 21 teachers who left at the end of last year were now on a payment plan of 3 percent of their outstanding salary. We asked him about claims of financial mismanagement at the school.
“I don’t know about that,” he said, “I don’t see the books, I’m not privy to the accounts. But we have an accounting structure, we have budgets. It’s not like there’s nothing there. The fees that have been paid have been spent on the school.”
He said he understood criticism of the sports dome project.
“I can understand how teachers might feel. My response is that the Sports Dome had been in play for four years. All of the permissions, all of the things the school needed to get, had been worked on behind the scenes. The school’s owners made the decision to invest for the future, to try to attract new pupils.”
We asked about the school’s apparent pattern of switching to a new contractor rather than paying the current one.
“We’ve had some vendors that we’ve had problems with, and then let go, and contracted new vendors,” he said. “The owner has managed that side of the school. Some of the vendors in the past have been dismissed for various reasons, then we’ve got into challenges with them over payment. We felt like they didn’t fulfill their end of the contract.”
He defended the changes as making better use of the school’s funds.
“We got a new guard company, and we were able to negotiate a better deal.”
We asked about the missing charity money.
“That is an issue that we need to work on and remedy,” he answered.
Eplin is adamant that he is staying in post and is determined to turn the school round.
“I’m not running away,” he said. “I’m trying to make this place work. I’m in my final year of my contract, and I’ve never broken a contract in my life.”
The teachers we spoke to were clear that events at BISS are a cautionary tale for all the city’s international schools.
“It can happen to any school, if the school is not financially savvy,” one said anonymously. “Many international schools are watching BISS because they are in some ways feeling the pressure of being a top-rated school with all the bells and whistles, but in a shifting economy in China.”