Director of Education says sorry over leaked e-books comment

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An education official who was secretly recorded in a private meeting where he contradicted the prime minister’s public statements regarding the ‘E-Book scandal’, said his (the education official’s) comment that the Cabinet was aware of the now controversial user fee for the product was premised on misinformation.

When asked who misinformed him that the Cabinet was advised about the fee and when, the Director of Education, Clare Browne, said, “I cannot claim that any specific person misinformed me. I was under the impression that all costs relating to the e-books initiative were put before the Cabinet for their approval. It only made sense to me. I was not aware that the recurring cost was inadvertently omitted from the Circulation Note to Cabinet.”

He also confirmed to OBSERVER media yesterday that he apologised to the Antigua and Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) Cabinet after its members became aware of his comments following the circulation of the leaked recording.

This is the latest in the saga which started recently after the public learned of and began questioning an “exorbitant” fee of US $250 per user – approximately $9 million annually payable to the company FortunaPIX — for the digitisation of textbooks being utilised by students and teachers in secondary schools in Antigua and Barbuda.

The prime minister, Gaston Browne, had said his Cabinet was not informed about the fees when the project was discussed with the officials over two years ago, and, after being told about it recently, investigations revealed there were a number of procedural errors with the agreement signed by Rosa Greenaway, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education and Clare Browne, the Director of Education.

Additionally, PM Browne said there has been no evidence of ill intent on the part of the officials, but the government would not be paying such a high user fee and it has since been re-negotiated down to US $80 going forward and US $125 for prior use.

Prior to Clare Browne’s response to OBSERVER media yesterday, in the leaked recording from his private meeting with education technicians, he can be heard saying the Cabinet was advised about the fee and it was actually set at US $300. In that audio, he did not state who advised the Cabinet of such a fee or when.

However, he was also heard saying, “According to the presentation that was laid to the Cabinet the user fee there was not US $250, it was US $300 per student so that’s what they saw and there was no objection, we got a Cabinet decision.”

Again, the recording did not identify who the education official was referring to when he said “we” got a Cabinet decision.

Fast-forward to yesterday, he addressed the issue of the recording.

“The audio captured my speculation of what the Cabinet Decision meant (thinking of course that all costs were before the Cabinet). Speculation/conjecture is NEVER fact. My comments were therefore taken from one context (conjecture in the confines of a conference room among colleagues, a supposedly confidential setting) and put in another context (the public domain) as if I were in combat with the Prime Minister and his Cabinet who demonstrated a willingness to support the vision of the Ministry of Education. Again, speculation is never fact; not even “alternative fact”.”

Meanwhile, the education director said the person who did the secret recording has not been identified.

“The anxiety of the Ministry of Education at this time is correcting errors made throughout the whole process of our attempting to bring our schools in the 21st century through technology and specifically with this initiative. We do not want to lose sight of the primary goal of providing our children and young people with the best possible education in a digital age. When I have anything else to share, I will be only too happy to offer,” he said.

Prior to Clare Browne’s comments in the leaked audio and his interview yesterday, the Prime Minister had told the nation on more than one occasion, that the Cabinet was not aware of any licensing fee of US $250 agreed to 18 months ago for the product.

Two days ago, the country’s leader spoke about the matter again, addressing the Clare Browne audio.

“The Director of Education stated something erroneously and he came to Cabinet and apologised last Wednesday, in which he said that the Cabinet knew about the US $250 licensing fee. The truth is, we were not aware, it was never really brought to our attention. What was spoken to when the presentation was made was the $5 million to purchase the e-books, not knowing that there was a user fee that would have resulted in an additional liability of almost $10 million annually which clearly was beyond the means of the central government and the Board of Education,” he said.

PM Browne said the director of education has no evidence to support his statement that the Cabinet was aware of the user fee.

In recent weeks, opposition parties and residents have been pondering whether they have been lied to, who is lying, why and what is being hidden about the e-books matter.

One protestor who was part of a group that took action outside the Ministry of Education last week, carried a placard which read, “That was not a blunder, that was a plunder.”

There have also been calls for the Minister of Education, Michael Browne, to be sacked, while the prime minister continues to downplay the issue, saying it has been addressed with the fee being brought down to US $80 per user.

In April 2016, the Government of Antigua and Barbuda entered into the agreement with the Indian firm FortunaPIX which was contracted to digitise textbooks for use in secondary schools in Antigua and Barbuda.

Headquartered in the United States with a developing centre in India, FortunaPIX is headed by co-founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) T.C Ashok who spoke on Pointe FM on Saturday.

He said there were no “kickbacks” for anyone or bribes and he is happy to continue working with the government here.

When the project was announced, Ashok had stated that the textbooks will be developed to the standard required by CXC, using the local curriculum and incorporating animation, quizzes, videos and word pronunciations.

A total of 30 textbooks covering 15 subject areas were earmarked for conversion within the first year of the project.

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