As one of the most exclusive and respected girls’ schools in Australia, Burchett Hill Ladies’ College (motto: "Graciousness and Godliness") is a venerable and dignified institution that has been exposed to embarrassing publicity only once in its history. That was in 1933 when the gymnastics instructress, Miss Guinevere Hoylake, a lady of large physique, climbed the college’s ivy-mantled tower and threatened to jump off unless the then headmistress, Miss Dorothy Cragshaw, agreed to elope with her.
The fire brigade retrieved her from the tower before she could carry out her threat, and an investigation established that the incident had been occasioned by a visit to the cinema to see the "film of the year", King Kong, which had led the impressionable Miss Hoylake to the conclusion that she was a reincarnation of the eponymous gorilla, and Miss Cragshaw the object of its passion. The scandal was quickly hushed up and the enamoured PE mistress consigned to a mental home, where she passed her days demanding peanuts from the other inmates in the belief that she was in a cage at the zoo.
The controversy that now, seventy-nine years later, engulfs Burchett Hill Ladies’ College, has nothing to do with movies and everything to do with the conflict of two powerful personalities. One is the current headmistress (now known as principal), Ms Deirdre Mussolini. The other is the chairman of the school council (now known as chairperson of the board), Ms Drusilla Alitosis, who has sent Ms Mussolini a letter of dismissal for "financial irregularity", accusing her of secretly selling the school to a consortium of Japanese businessmen who intend to use it as a recruiting base for "hostesses" in a chain of geisha bars.
Ms Mussolini vehemently denies the allegation and claims that the "sale" is actually a "joint venture" with a Japanese hospitality training institution "of world repute" and that it had been verbally agreed to in private conversations with members of the board, of which, however, she had unfortunately lost her notes. She counter-accuses Ms Alitosis, who is a member of the Greens party (she is the "partner" of the Mayor of Burchett Hill, Councillor Les Rhiannon), of trying to "white-ant" the college for ideological reasons.
"Everyone knows that she (Ms Alitosis) has repeatedly said private schools should be nationalised without compensation," Ms Mussolini told ABC radio host Jon Trotsky. "The trouble-making cow," she continued, in a lapse from her morning-assembly mode of speech, "only got herself onto the board so she could act as a Trojan horse and get the school shut down and me out of a job."
When Trotsky volunteered that his "own take on the affair" was to wonder whether the principal had "allowed climate-change denialism to be taught in the college, which of course would justify her dismissal," Ms Mussolini brushed him aside and continued her attack on Ms Alitosis.
"She should have stayed in the fish shop," she said (presumably in a reference to the professional occupation of Ms Alitosis’s Greek-born parents), "but her father sent her to BHLC, and as an Old Girl she browbeat her way onto the board. Now she’s there, she is cynically misrepresenting an innovative and imaginative exchange-student programme, designed to help BHLC girls gain fluency in a second language, as selling them into slavery or something. Talk about loyalty to her old school."
The dispute has divided the BHLC community. Many parents support Ms Mussolini and say the school wouldn’t be the same without her. "She’s a lovely lady and she got my Kasey through Year 11 with only four fails," says single mother Denise Hotchkiss, "and when my ex walked out on me she let me work off the school fees by washing up in the tuckshop."
"I have every confidence in her, " says Arab-born "Australian success story" Waheed Saddam, CEO of the Commonwealth Egg Board. "We’ve had nineteen daughters at BHLC, and every one of their mothers is pleased with the results. Speaking personally, I’ve always found Deirdre — she’s a first-name kind of person, very unstuffy — pleasant and obliging about accepting any little presents I’ve offered her to help our girls on their way."
The president of the BHLC Parents’ Association, Mr Lou ("Lucky") Giancana, general manager of StallSafe, one of several rival firms of "protection counsellors" operating in the Victorian wholesale fruit and vegetable market, was to have issued a statement urging Ms Mussolini "not to give in to board blackmail" but was unable to do so, having been found yesterday floating in the Maribyrnong River.
For its part, the college board is "solidly behind" Ms Alitosis ("a very determined personality", says a former colleague), but board members declined to comment individually. "Whatever Drusilla says, I agree with," said one.
With the situation in stalemate – Ms Mussolini says she is "staying put" and Ms Alitosis declares "either she goes or I go and it won’t be me" – the Uniting Church, which controls the school trust, has called for mediation. "I feel it is only fair and proper that these two good ladies sit down and sort out their little difference over a cup of tea," says the church’s moderator, the Rev. Owen Featherhead. "As our dear Master tells us in Matthew 5:24, when we have any unpleasantness with one of our sisters or brothers, we should put down whatever we are doing and leave it in front of the altar, and shake hands in a spirit of peace and reconciliation. It is all too easy, is it not, to let a petty disagreement get out of hand and …"
At this point there was a crash and his study door flew open, revealing the fierce-faced figures of both Ms Mussolini and Ms Alitosis, the former brandishing a long leather strap, the latter rolling up her sleeve. "Petty, is it?" they demanded as with one voice. "You just come out from under that desk and say that in our faces!"
Christopher Akehurst blogs at Argus-online