South Australian Catholic schools defend receiving tens of millions in JobKeeper funding

South Australia’s Catholic Church banked at least $57 million in funding intended to keep school staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Catholic Archdiocese, which is responsible for the state’s large Catholic education sector, has received a large amount of the JobKeeper wage subsidy claimed by its South Australian schools.

Figures from the Parliamentary Budget Office, analyzed by the ABC, show 73 Catholic schools received $85.6 million in funding from the former federal government’s JobKeeper program.

Corporate governance researcher Dean Paatsch looked at Catholic school funding as part of a wider investigation into independent schools and JobKeeper.

“The Catholic Church in South Australia has had an absolutely ripping pandemic,” he told the ABC.

A man sitting at a desk looking down at a piece of paper in his hands
Dean Paatsch says SA Catholic schools were “over-represented” in the sample.(ABC News)

The wage subsidy was available to businesses based on a real or forecast downturn in their turnover of 30 per cent in the early months of 2020.

But Mr Paatsch said many schools’ incomes ultimately increased, exclusive of JobKeeper.

“This [JobKeeper] increased the profit of those Catholic schools by $66 million, which is to say that all the JobKeeper paid to South Australian Catholic schools was simply a sugar hit to their profits,” he said.

The schools remitted unused funding to the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide, which oversees Catholic Education SA.

In its report to the Australian Charity and Not-for-profits Commission, the Catholic Church Endowment Society — which oversees the Catholic Education Office — said it had received $57 million of funding from schools and would use it for future projects.

“The federal government’s JobKeeper scheme enabled schools in 2020 to provide significant fee relief for families in need whilst meeting all legislative criteria for keeping staff employed,” the 2020 financial report states.

“Surplus untied funds have been returned to the Catholic Education Office for strategic allocation to schools in coming years.”

A sign for the Catholic Education Center in Thebarton
The schools remitted unused funding to the Catholic Archdiocese of Adelaide, which oversees Catholic Education SA.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

The Catholic Education Office told the ABC it used the JobKeeper funding to provide relief from school fees and keep staff employed.

“Our eligibility for JobKeeper was assessed in strict accordance with the scheme’s criteria and independently verified,” the statement said.

“All funds were administered in line requirements with the scheme’s and used to support students, families, and staff in Catholic schools.”

The Catholic Education Office did not answer specific questions about the amount of fee relief provided or the JobKeeper subsidy retained by the church.

Catholic schools in other states did not claim JobKeeper in such large numbers.

A sign reading Catholic Education South Australia
The Catholic Education Office said the JobKeeper payments were used to provide relief from school fees and keep staff.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

In New South Wales, where there are nearly 600 Catholic schools, Parliamentary Budget Office figures show only two claimed JobKeeper.

In Victoria, where there are nearly 500 Catholic schools, only eight claimed JobKeeper.

But in South Australia, Catholic schools got more than 60 percent of all the JobKeeper paid to schools in the state.

“This struck us as unusual because SA experienced quite a lot less in lockdowns and has an appreciably lower number of schools,” Mr Paatsch said.

“We found out that South Australian Catholic schools were over-represented in the sample compared with other Catholic schools nationwide.”

Mr Paatsch said the money had substantially improved the organisation’s bottom line.

“They hoovered up the excessive JobKeeper that they had received at the school level … and the Catholic Church can now do what it likes with that money,” he said.

Hands holding a piece of paper showing a table
An analysis showed SA Catholic schools received more than 60 percent of all JobKeeper payments made to schools in the state.(ABC News: Michael Barnett)

One of the most prominent criticisms of the JobKeeper scheme is that many organizations and businesses which claimed the subsididy increased their income.

In fact many high-end independent schools recorded large surpluses after claiming JobKeeper.

The JobKeeper program also did not include a “clawback mechanism”, a way for the government to recover funds claimed during the pandemic which weren’t used to keep people employed.

“There’s nothing that you can do to obligate them but it’s open to public benevolent charitable institutions to make a contribution to return their money that they clearly didn’t need, back to taxpayers where it belongs,” Mr Paatsch said.`

Former treasurer Josh Frydenberg did not respond to the ABC’s questions about Catholic schools, but has previously defended the JobKeeper scheme as “one of the most successful economic support programs in Australia’s history”.

The Coalition spokesperson referred questions to the Australian Taxation Office, which said schools had to meet eligibility criteria to receive the money.

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