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Tories Failed To Act On Red Flags At Home-Schooling Association

12/12/2016 01:55 EST | Updated 12/12/2016 01:56 EST
Catherine Delahaye via Getty Images
A 7 years old boy doing his homework

It is always much easier not to do the responsible, adult thing. No one gets pleasure from taking care of that sink full of dishes that collected over the weekend. If only we had the good luck to be the Alberta Tories, we could just ignore our responsibilities for years and then have someone else clean up.

The Alberta government has stripped accreditation and funding from the Trinity Christian School Association, which operates a private school based in Cold Lake and contracts a company that provides home schooling to thousands of Alberta students. The government's allegations of financial wrongdoing are outlined in recently released court documents.

For years, Progressive Conservative governments in Alberta turned a blind eye to multiple red flags at Trinity Christian.

The signs that something was wrong go back more than 19 years.

Two families involved in running the association and affiliated organizations are alleged to have taken home $2.86 million in salaries from 2012 to 2015. A private school called the Wisdom Centre was built by the association with public dollars -- a clear violation of Alberta Education rules -- and sold to one of the affiliates. The documents also show questionable lease agreements, and $988,000 in public money that should have gone to parents for education expenses -- but instead was spent on gift cards, babysitting and booze.

The new New Democratic Party government in Alberta was forced to do the adult thing and clean up the mess.

The signs that something was wrong go back more than 19 years, the court documents show.

A September 1997 letter from Alberta Education to the most senior employee of Trinity Christian reads, somewhat prophetically: "It appears your school is reluctant to comply with all of Alberta Education's regulations." The Tory education minister at the time was Gary Mar.

In January 2004, Alberta Education wrote to Trinity Christian to let it know again it was breaking the rules:

"It is evident that Alberta Learning funding has been used for purposes not permitted by the funding manual and AISI [Alberta Initiative for School Improvement] guidelines. More specifically, the purchase of the Wisdom Centre building and some of the listed AISI equipment should not have been purchased with Alberta Learning funding."

More than $500,000 in taxpayers' money was used to pay for the Wisdom Centre, in contravention of all law and precedent when it comes to private schools in Alberta, the documents say. Taxpayers do not build private schools in Alberta. Taxpayers finance private school students' education for up to 70 per cent of the amount that would be spent for a public school student. But private schools do not get money for capital projects.

Trinity Christian and the Tory government ignored this rule, and it is unclear if this money was ever returned or deducted from future funds sent to Trinity Christian. The court documents allege the Wisdom Centre was then sold at a substantial loss to Living Water College, an organization run by Kenneth and Marlane Noster, members of one of the families at the heart of this case. That building was then leased to the Wisdom Home Schooling Society of Alberta, an organization affiliated with Trinity Christian, at a very reasonable rate.

The Tory education minister, at the time a private school was built with public dollars, was Lyle Oberg.

In 2009, Alberta Education started to question Trinity Christian's financial reporting. Why were funds being carried forward? What exactly was Wisdom Home Schooling doing, given that it was not a registered or accredited private school? Those concerns continued until 2015.

In February 2014, Alberta Education warned Trinity Christian it was not complying with the rules for homeschooling.

In March 2015, a couple of months before premier Jim Prentice and the Tories lost to the Alberta New Democrats, Alberta Education repeated that warning.

The Tory education ministers between 2009 and 2015 were Dave Hancock, Thomas Lukaszuk, Jeff Johnson and Gordon Dirks. All failed to act on red flags that something was wrong at Trinity Christian School Association and Wisdom Home Schooling.

Last fall, after an investigation by auditors, Trinity Christian was stripped of its accreditation. That decision was made by New Democrat Education Minister David Eggen. (The money and accreditation were temporarily restored through a court injunction.)

It is no fun to do the responsible thing and deal with a long-festering problem. Six Tory education ministers had the chance. They all declined. It is worth asking why.

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