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Gregg Maloberti, the controversial head of the Canadian International School of Hong Kong, talks to kindergarten students in the playground last month.Anthony Kwan

A Canadian school in Hong Kong fired a group of its teachers early Thursday afternoon, putting an exclamation point on a tumultuous year marked by warring for control of an elite institution.

The bloodletting left teachers in shock and students in tears as a secretary handed pink slips to 11 staff, one of whom had taught at the school for 18 years. "This termination will take immediate effect," stated the letters, which were handed to teachers at the Canadian International School of Hong Kong shortly before students left for the summer. Some were standing in their classes signing yearbooks when they received the news, and broke into tears.

"That's horrible, right? It's totally amoral and inhumane," said Heather Sheridan, an upper school counsellor who is leaving this year from a place whose troubles have become an ongoing drama in a city where hundreds of thousands hold Canadian passports.

Moments later, security guards appeared and teachers found themselves locked out of their e-mail accounts, a tactic common in the business world, but rare in education – in particular at a Maple Leaf-waving place that long prided itself on being the "happy school."

But in recent months, the school has been most notable for its internal conflict, which has pitted moneyed parents and some teachers against administrators and governors. The fierceness of the fight is in part a reflection of the high pressure on education in Hong Kong, a city where the wealthy pay great sums to educate their children at schools that begin acceptance interviews with two-year-olds.

The dispute is rooted in arguments over the school's governance hierarchy, but has become a referendum on the leadership of Gregg Maloberti, the current head of school and the first American to hold that position. Mr. Maloberti replaced a popular and long-serving previous head who was punted after clashing with school governors.

The school has also recently lost four other senior administrators, in addition to several governors who quit amid the squabbling. Earlier this year, teachers were surveyed and overwhelmingly said they had no confidence in Mr. Maloberti's leadership.

Three of those fired were spouses of the deposed administrators; most of the others had been vocal in calling for change at the school.

"It's North Korea," said one parent, who asked not to be named because her students attend the school. "You speak, you get fired."

The letters reminded fired employees of their "confidentiality obligations," which they read as a gag order. The school promised to pay up to 40 per cent of salaries, plus full bonuses, to those it let go.

Mr. Maloberti did not reply to a request for comment. Instead, school spokeswoman Melanie Hnetka wrote in an e-mail that the school "has made nine staff changes at the close of this academic year," but would "not comment on individual personnel matters."

Several people close to the school said it sought to get rid of 10 teachers, but was unable to fire one woman who is pregnant. Another administrative staffer was also fired.

The Canadian school has 1,850 students and 156 teachers. It is an International Baccalaureate school accredited by the government of Ontario. Anger at Mr. Maloberti has been so fierce that one parent filed a legal complaint to have him removed, alleging he is unqualified for his position. So far, that effort has not succeeded.

The school, in turn, has sought legal advice on whether it can boot out certain students as a way of severing relations with parents it doesn't like.

The fighting has brought no shortage of tense moments to the school, not least on Thursday, when concerned parents raced in after hearing about the firings.

"We are all worried, and really terrorized," said Lucia Del Vita, who has two children at the school. "The situation keeps getting more serious and more dramatic. I feel the school has reached a point of no return."

On the last day of school, teachers and staff normally line up outside to wave goodbye to the school buses. On Thursday, instead, some were inside packing their things, and no one came to say farewell. Some students took down Mr. Maloberti's official portrait.

The school, in its statement, said everything was fine. It "is dedicated to honouring its long-standing commitment to providing a world-class education for our students," Ms. Hnetka wrote in her e-mail. "The School will be fully staffed with qualified teachers when classes resume in August."

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