Financial management is a very complex issue; at the dawn of democracy the full responsibility for the financial management in public schools was given to school governing bodies. The governing body usually asks the school principal to act as finance manager who executes the financial responsibilities on a daily basis. This puts the principal in a precarious position. The research investigates the role players' understanding of the public school principals' legal responsibilities regarding financial management in Limpopo province. It looks at how the school principals, finance officers and the departmental officials perceive the public school principals' understanding, interpretation and application pertaining to his or her legal responsibilities. It further looks at the knowledge of legislation, reporting of financial expenditure at school level, reporting of financial irregularity cases found in schools, as well as the legal responsibility of financial accountability.
A predominantly qualitative research approach with nominal application of the quantitative approach, an interpretive paradigm and multiple case studies allowed the researcher to gain an in-depth understanding of how various role players view or perceive the public school principals' legal responsibilities regarding financial management. I interviewed six principals, six finance officers and six departmental officials about their understanding of the public school principals' legal responsibilities regarding financial management in Limpopo Province. A total of 53 principals, 22 finance officers and four departmental officials successfully completed a questionnaire about their understanding, perceptions and experiences of the public school principals' stipulated legal responsibilities regarding financial management. All these people were involved in the day-to-day management and administration of funds in public schools. Documents such as finance policies, finance files, minute books, school budgets and audited financial statements were analysed to build a clear picture of the state of financial management in the selected public schools.
Findings from this study are that there are vast differences in how various role players understand and interpret the public school principals' legal responsibilities regarding financial management in Limpopo. The rationale for having the legislation is to make things uniform and give guidelines. There is a lack of implementation of legal responsibilities by principals who sometimes experience fear of intimidation and victimisation and threat from teacher unions defending their members, SGB and the community. There is lack of knowledge of legislation and sheer ignorance of the law. There are misconceptions that principals in South Africa are accounting officers for everything happening in their respective schools. I found misconceptions of the principals' responsibilities of reporting the financial expenditure and financial mismanagement cases which are not reported, but resolved in schools. There is a culture of non-accountability, non-adherence to prescripts as a result of limited knowledge of legislation, expertise and experience of the principal in financial management.
The study has unearthed a number of challenges that are serious concerns for the role players such as the principals, finance officers and the departmental officials regarding financial management. These include issues such as limited understanding, interpretation and application of the law, inadequate knowledge of legislation and financial skills, ignorance of policy and legislation, lack of transparency and openness when dealing with public finances, signing of blank cheques, intimidation, threats and victimisation from victims, teacher unions' interference in the appointment of principals, a lack of proper monitoring and control of expenditure at school level by the principal as well as by departmental officials from circuit level up to provincial level characterise school financial management. Much work remains to be done to close the gaps identified and to make financial management in South African public schools even better.
The findings of the study have led to recommendations to assist public school principals, finance officers, school governing body members and departmental officials to understand the legal responsibilities of the principal in this regard better. The recommendations include models for the understanding principals' legal responsibilities in financial management, internal financial control and monitoring in public schools by holding principals accountable for the use of every cent in the schools. Other recommendations include intensive training and capacitating, compliance with legislation and the centralisation of auditing of public school financial books.