Boys’ school fears hard knock from payroll tax change

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The Frank Dando Sports Academy takes in boys who have been spat out by all other schools, but it fears looming payroll tax changes could force it to turn some of them away.

The independent school enrols boys in years 6 to 10 who have been expelled, failed academically or experienced school refusal. Most have been diagnosed with behavioural and neurological disorders.

Frank Dando Sports Academy principal Ziad Zakharia leads a morning boxing session at the boys’ school.Credit: Eddie Jim

“We take pretty much anybody and everybody that nobody else wants,” principal Ziad Zakharia says.

The current crop of 33 students have come from as far afield as Sydney to a nameless brown brick building in suburban Ashwood at which facilities are basic, bordering on run down. New students often arrive with their self-confidence crushed.

Most mornings start with an hour of martial arts or boxing. The smell of sweat, the barked instructions of four teachers, and the rat-a-tat of boxing gloves thumping into mitts fill the low-roofed room, where chairs and tables will be pulled out for two hours of literacy and numeracy classes later in the day.

Afternoons are dedicated to outdoor pursuits such as ocean swimming.

Fees are $12,000 a year, putting the academy above the expected threshold for the Andrews government’s payroll tax exemption removal for non-government schools.

Zakharia says most of the fees pay for the school’s unusually high staff-to-student ratio, as well as putting on outdoor camps, both of which are an essential aspect of its teaching model.

“We’re not real flush, as you can see,” he says from a cramped classroom with water stains on the walls.

Jai is school captain. He isn’t concerned with facilities, but with the new sense of acceptance and purpose the school has given him.

He came here from Brentwood Secondary College, a government school in Glen Waverley where he was “always in trouble”.

“It was a good school, it wasn’t one of the bad schools, but I was just hanging out with the wrong crowd, and I was always getting picked on by teachers,” Jai says. He says the academy is “awesome”.

School captain Jai came to the Frank Dando Sports Academy after struggling to be accepted at his local state school. Credit: Eddie Jim

Out of shape when he started at the school, Jai says he has lost 20 kilos. He doesn’t want to leave, but plans to go to TAFE when he does.

His little brother is enrolled here too, and both of them are on half-scholarships.

Zakharia says: “With payroll tax, unfortunately, that would definitely have an effect on some scholarships that we can give.

“I understand that the state is in debt and the government are trying to get out of the red and into the black, and I think any government will try and do that.

“But I think to pinpoint independent schools and think that the people that come here are all well-off and there is no issue, I think they are a bit blindsided to the smaller schools like us.”

The removal of the payroll tax exemption for an estimated 110 high-fee non-government schools was announced in the May budget as part of the state government’s $31.5 billion debt repayment plan.

The fee threshold for losing the exemption was initially set at $7500, though Premier Daniel Andrews later told state parliament it would be raised, affect fewer than 110 schools and ultimately raise less than the forecast $422.2 million over three years.

The threshold is not expected to be confirmed until the end of June, but it was being debated in the upper house on Tuesday, two weeks after sailing through the lower house.

“I personally think the schools tax is a particularly egregious attack on aspiration,” opposition education spokesperson Matthew Bach said during the debate.

John Berger, a Labor member for the southern metropolitan region, said the tax changes were “an exercise in fiscal responsibility”.

“During the pandemic, we borrowed large sums of money to ensure our state could keep on moving … Now the task falls on us to repay the debt accumulated during the pandemic,” he said.

Staff in education minister Natalie Hutchins’ office have recently met representatives of the non-government and Catholic school sectors, who have sought to step up public pressure over the tax changes.

High-fee independent school Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School wrote to parents this week, calling the tax change “very frustrating and highly unsatisfactory”.

“Over the coming months, we will be working hard to minimise the impact of this tax on school families,” principal Kate Dullard wrote. “However, we anticipate that significant fee increases will be required to fund this liability.”

The Catholic Education Commission of Victoria said fee rises could force many families to withdraw their children, placing financial strain on the government system.

“Any shift to the government school sector would mean the new tax won’t improve the budget bottom line as much as the government thinks,” executive director Jim Miles said.

Analysis of the latest financial data on MySchool shows Victoria spends $10,748 on average per government school student, and $1242 per non-government school student.

“Based on the latest available financial data, every student that moves into a government school could cost the Victorian government an extra $9500 per annum,” Miles said.

“That’s the average difference in what the Victorian government pays, between a student in Victoria who attends a mainstream government school in Melbourne, and a student who attends a mainstream non-government school with fees and charges of over $8000.”

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