Debra Kelliher, former principal of Kambala private school for girls, sued the institution
One of Australia’s most prestigious schools has apologised to a former principal over defamatory emails sent by two teachers to more than 300 people after she quit her $650,000-a-year job.
Debra Kelliher resigned as principal of Kambala at Rose Bay in Sydney’s eastern suburbs in April 2017 amid accusations by staff of her ‘tyrannical rule’ and ‘bullying’.
Ms Kelliher, who ran the girls’ school for three and a half years, sued Kambala and two of its teachers for defamation.
The 61-year-old claimed two emails sent by the teachers to other staff and circulated in the broader Kambala community had made her unemployable.
The emails had cost her $2million in lost employment opportunities, she said.
Kambala, a non-selective day and boarding school established in 1887, brags about its stunning location on New South Head Road and harbourside tennis courts.
‘Our boarders benefit from some of the most spectacular views of the Sydney Harbour and are surrounded by tranquil waters just a short distance to the beach,’ its website states.
Ms Kelliher was just its twelth principal.
Kambala’s apology to her is part of a settlement which avoided the messy dispute being heard in court.
Kambala school for girls in Sydney’s Rose Bay is one of Australia’s most exclusive educational institutions. Debra Kelliher was principal there for three and a half years until April 2017
Kambala school for girls has apologised to former principal Debra Kelliher for emails sent by two teachers claiming Ms Kelliher was a tyrant and a bully. The emails reached 300 people
The school, its council and the two teachers unequivocally withdrew the comments against Ms Kelliher and apologised unreservedly for the harm and hurt they caused her.
During a directions hearing in October 2017 the school and Ms Kelliher agreed it would be in all their interests to mediate the dispute rather than air their grievances in open court.
At the time Justice Lucy McCallum said a hearing would be ‘destructive to both sides’.
‘There’s not going to be any winners out of a hearing that attracts a lot of media attention, which it will,’ Justice McCallum said.
Kambala’s barrister Clarissa Amato had warned ‘it promises to be long, expensive and unpleasant for both sides.’
Ms Kelliher, who is still unemployed as she completes a doctorate, said she was pleased the matter had been resolved and that the school had finally apologised.
Kambala (pictured) is located at Rose Bay with spectacular views across Sydney Harbour. The exclusive Anglican school for girls has an indoor pool and tennis courts overlooking the water
Kambala’s mission is to ‘challenge and nurture every girl to realise her full potential for personal and academic excellence’. The school is on New South Head Road at Rose Bay
‘I’m proud of my record as an educator, particularly of young women, and the work I undertook at Kambala to build an inclusive school, which focused on the needs of the students,’ she said.
‘I’d like to thank the staff, parents, students and wider school community who have supported me during this difficult time.’
Ms Kelliher claimed head music teacher Mark Grandison and head social science teacher June Peake sent defamatory emails to parents, staff and former staff after her resignation in 2017.
(Ms Kelliher said in her statement of claim she had refused Mr Grandison’s request to buy the school a $300,000 Steinway piano).
Mr Grandison’s email was sent in response to a public statement by the then president of Kambala School Council, Sally Herman, that Ms Kelliher had done a ‘wonderful job’.
Hours after Mr Grandison’s email Ms Peake sent him and another teacher an email referring to the ‘campaign to remove DK’. That email was forwarded to all 200 Kambala staff.
The school has apologised to Ms Kelliher in a written statement sent to more than 300 people who eventually received the defamatory emails.
Kambala’s letter of apology to the 300 people who received defamatory emails about Debra Kelliher. The former principal has reached a settlement in her defamation against the school
‘Kambala, the School Council, Mr Grandison and Ms Peake, all deeply regret, and unequivocally withdraw, the comments against Ms Kelliher in emails sent on 11 April 2017,’ the statement said.
‘Kambala, the School Council, Mr Grandison and Ms Peake, all apologise unreservedly to Ms Kelliher for the publication of those emails and for the harm and hurt they have caused to her.’
Debra Kelliher said she refused a teacher’s request to buy a $300,000 Steinway piano for the private girls’ school (stock image)
Ms Kelliher alleged the emails helped make her unemployable after leaving her $650,000-a-year role, meaning she could not even get an interview for a principal’s job.
Kambala, where annual tuition fees range from $19,700 to $35,300, initially denied all claims against it and the teachers.
The school had said the emails were not capable of being defamatory, and if they were Ms Kelliher’s reputation was already damaged because she had lost the confidence of parents and staff.
Kambala said Ms Kelliher had a reputation among staff and parents for ‘unethical, unprofessional conduct’ and creating a ‘culture of fear’.
In a statement to ABC News in 2017, Ms Kelliher said the allegedly defamatory emails were ‘completely at odds with the evidence that exists regarding the school’s academic record and my performance as principal of Kambala.’
Kambala Anglican school for girls boasts its students have spectacular Sydney Habour views
Ms Kelliher said Kambala was $12million in debt when she took over as principal in January 2014, according to the statement of claim she filed in the NSW Supreme Court.
The school had run at an operating loss of $1.5million the previous year, she said.
Ms Kelliher claimed in the court documents that former principal Margaret White, who ran the school from 2000 to 2013, had presided over ‘very serious financial irregularities’.
When Ms Kelliher took over she discovered the school’s former business manager Ian MacColluch had defrauded the school of $400,000. Mr MacColluch admitted to the allegations and was sentenced to community service.
Ms Kelliher further alleged that from 2010 to 2013 Ms White charged $650,000 in expenses to the school including $200,000 on personal items including shoes, jewellery and hair appointments.
She also said teachers enjoyed privileges such as international travel to conferences ‘of little benefit to the school’ as well as ‘extravagant morning teas’ and Cabcharge vouchers.
Annual tuition fees at Kambala in Sydney’s Rose Bay, range from $19,700 to $35,300
Former president of Kambala School Council Sally Herman (left) praised Debra Kelliher’s work. Former Kambala principal Margaret White (right) ran the school from 2000 to 2013
Despite the financial difficulties she inherited, Ms Kelliher claimed she managed to repay $9million in debt and run a surplus of $5.3million in 2016.
Ms Kelliher said she also improved the school’s culture and performance. Enrollments reached a record high of 1,067.
Music teacher Mr Grandison’s email about Ms Kelliher was motivated by his dislike for her and to encourage negative publicity, she said.
In her statement of claim, Ms Kelliher said Mr Grandison’s and Ms Peake’s emails contained several defamatory imputations.
Among the imputations were that Ms Kelliher was so incompetent that student academic results did not improve during her tenure and academic results were likely to worsen because many staff left the school.
Ms Kelliher had sought damages, costs and an injunction permanently restraining the defendants.
Kambala independent Anglican school for girls has sporting facilities including an indoor pool
Kambala’s failure to issue a correction or apology meant the school had virtually adopted and endorsed the emails’ contents, she alleged.
Ms Kelliher said in her statement of claim that while Kambala was an independent Anglican school there was ‘little real Christian practice’ and ‘open mocking of religion by staff members’.
The school had denied the content of the emails was capable of being defamatory of Ms Kelliher, or that the emails contained the alleged imputations.
A spokesman for Kambala told Daily Mail Australia: ‘The proceeding has been discontinued with no admission of liability by Kambala or the teachers.’
‘The apology and emails was a requirement of the settlement.’
Ms Kelliher is completing a doctorate on ‘how to improve student leadership in young women’ and hopes to resume her education career.
Kambala (pictured) is an exclusive independent Anglican day and boarding school for girls