For years, the Canadian International School of Hong Kong nurtured an image as the "happy school." It was a quintessentially Canuck institution, a place teachers and families alike described as extraordinarily nice, even as it built a reputation for pumping out some of the smartest kids in the city.
But a cloud has descended over the school, where 1,850 students enter every day past totem poles and walk beneath exposed Douglas fir beams to descend the steps of a 14-storey campus that hugs a steep Hong Kong hill.
For much of the past year, the school in the moneyed city has often looked more like a field of war than a place of learning, as a dispute over who should govern it has escalated into full conflagration – dragging the Maple Leaf down with it, since the school has long been a flag-bearer for Canada in Asia. Parents want the school's founders to cede power; the founders have held fast and reminded parents the school is private, not public. No one can articulate a clear difference in vision for the school, but the place is in upheaval.
The institution has lost a head of school, two principals, a vice-principal and a director of business administration. Seven people on the board of governors are gone – five resigned, two were booted out – and two of the "members," a group largely made up of school founders that sits atop the governors, have also quit. Parents have poured out vitriol on Facebook, and students and teachers have poured out tears in the hallways. The school has called in extra security and outside counsellors to deal with the anger, and hired outside legal and PR counsel.
Meetings have erupted in catcalling and name-calling. The board accuses some parents of conducting a witch hunt and launching a coup. The parents call the members a secretive cabal, the "Antichrist" and a Vichy-style government.
"It's very un-Canadian at the moment," said John Crawford, who played a pivotal role in helping the school expand over its 24 years. It was first established at the behest of Hong Kong authorities looking to lure back people who had fled to Canada in the post-Tiananmen era. Mr. Crawford is the founding partner of Ernst & Young in Hong Kong and has worked with thousands of companies. The meltdown at the Canadian school ranks "in the top 10" dysfunctional messes he has seen, he said. Parents are asking him whether they should pull out their kids. "It tears my heart out," he said.
The "vortex," as parent Sabrina Maguire called it, has sucked in a surprising chunk of the city's Canadian elite. Such companies as Manulife and RBC own golden debentures that guarantee admission to children of top executives who pass required tests. The local Canadian consul general, who holds a seat on the board and whose diplomats largely send their kids to the school, has been dragged in to try to mediate. (He declined comment; others said he has sought to maintain neutral ground.)
"It's a train wreck in slow motion," said Patricia Bilden, a parent and former school governor.
Underlying it all is a city that ranks among the most fierce on Earth for education. Admissions interviews start with kids barely old enough to walk. One parent developed a PowerPoint to sing the praises of his daughter and her "competitive playgroup skills." She was two.
"Hong Kong's school culture is very cutthroat," said Nicole Webb, a writer and local blogger.
The city's class culture has played a role, too. The school's parents manage billions of dollars in funds and drop their kids off in Mercedes vans at a place where tuition and fees can reach $30,000 a year. Parents also worry about anything that could hurt education for their kids.
Switching schools can take two years in Hong Kong, and the Canadian school has long been the place to be. Roughly half its teachers have master's degrees, and its graduating students' International Baccalaureate scores average 36 out of 45, an elite performance steps ahead of comparable Canadian institutions, such as Upper Canada College in Toronto.
For all of that, head of school Gregg Maloberti has faced numerous calls for his resignation. He finds himself defending the members as "not the Illuminati," while founding board chair Richard Wong, a member who has retaken the chairman's seat in the midst of the mess, admits he would be happy to see some of his parental adversaries go. "If those people's leaving will help, I don't mind," Mr. Wong said.
The school has looked into whether it could fire parents by booting their kids, but "determined that it was not a possibility. We asked the question," Mr. Maloberti said.
Both sides are convinced the others are corrupt, to the extent the board has called in auditors on former school staff – but found nothing amiss.
The parents, meanwhile, cast themselves as powerless victims against school leadership. "What makes it the most galling is that Goliath is funded with our money. He's fed by us," Ms. Maguire said.
But in Hong Kong, there's an argument to be made that it's the parents who are rightfully termed Goliath. Some have given money to pay for teachers' legal costs. One, a former journalist, has been calling up old associates of Mr. Maloberti to dig up dirt. Investment bankers have pried into the financial background of the members. Lawyers have exhumed financial statements.
Ms. Maguire, a corporate counsel at GE, has filed a complaint with the local education bureau asking to have Mr. Maloberti removed as unqualified. One parent dug up information showing the school has made $110-million in profit since it was founded, all the while raising tuition annually.
The bickering has made it into boardrooms, too. In an effort to unseat the previous board chair, who works at PricewaterhouseCoopers, executives at other companies called and threatened to pull business.
The previous headmaster was popular with parents but not the board, and quit last year. Mr. Maloberti, the first non-Canadian to head the school, has proven popular with the board and members, but not with parents or teachers. In recent petitions, 870 parents signed opposing his leadership, as did 114 out of 118 teachers who filled out a no-confidence survey (the school has 156 teachers). A further 138 parents put their names to a petition supporting him.
But with the full support of Mr. Wong, the board chair, Mr. Maloberti has no plans to go anywhere. He has released a series of YouTube videos to communicate his thoughts, and says he believes the fires will cool when he is able to resume a "visioning process" – interrupted by the squabbling – to discuss the school's future.
"It will come. It will come," he said. "Once we honestly engage in some surveys and some focus-group discussion and people begin to recognize that the board doesn't have a secret agenda, the trust will start to build."
Ms. Maguire, who has found herself writing 2 a.m. e-mails to get things off her chest, calls it a "great chess game," but admits it has left outsiders shaking their collective heads. "I think we're the source of vicarious amusement for half of Hong Kong right now," she said.