EDMONTON — A privately run Alberta home schooling agency at the centre of a million-dollar spending scandal says it has done nothing wrong.
The Wisdom Home Schooling Society calls government allegations of financial misdeeds "partial truths amounting to calumny" and says the society "has administered home schooling in an exemplary manner."
The society is urging parents not to work with the province as it tries to find new arrangements for Wisdom's 3,500 home-schooled students and 13 others who were in a classroom setting in Cold Lake.
"Over the next few days the Wisdom Parent Advisory Council will communicate suggestions regarding your options," read a news release the society issued Wednesday.
Wisdom's administrator, Ken Noster, when reached by phone, declined to comment.
For two decades Wisdom was subcontracted by the publicly funded Trinity Christian School Association.
Trinity receives more than $5 million a year from taxpayers. That represents about one-third of all home-schooled students in Alberta.
On Tuesday, Education Minister David Eggen announced the province was immediately cancelling Trinity's accreditation and funding for failing to adequately supervise Wisdom.
On Wednesday, he told reporters it was imperative to act and urged students to re-register with another board to get funding flowing again.
"It was incumbent upon us to stop the flow of money to that particular organization," he said.
Eggen was acting on the recommendation of an audit that reviewed Trinity and Wisdom finances going back three years. It found the senior ranks of both organizations were essentially made up of two families.
It said those families, whose names were not made public, received $2.8 million in compensation over the last three years.
It found that almost all the money given to Trinity was redirected to Wisdom, which, in turn committed multiple financial irregularities.
A report pointed to lavish per diems, double dipping on mileage and travel expenses and family members giving employment contracts to other family members. Taxpayer money was used to buy alcohol, gifts, gift cards, pizza, parties, babysitting costs and funeral expenses.
It said Wisdom was spending about one-third of its budget on administration compared with about six per cent by similar organizations.
The report said Wisdom paid more than $100,000 a year for head office space — about 10 times the going rate — at Lone Spruce Farm near Derwent, Alta.
The report redacted the name of the farm owner, but the phone number for the farm is the same as the one for Noster's home.
The report stated that over the last three years, Wisdom improperly held back $988,000 that was to go to parents for schooling.
Wisdom, in the news release, said the money was to go to home education.
The province has notified Revenue Canada and the RCMP.
Parents were notified by telephone Tuesday night that the program was being shut down and that they would need to find a new provider.
Marijke De Bruin, an Edmonton parent with one home-schooled child, said the government report paints a damning picture of problems at Wisdom, but the sudden shutdown has left many parents and families scrambling for funds and programs.
"Alberta Education out of nowhere just pulls the rug out," said De Bruin.
"There's no warning, no supports. You had your life set and plans ... and suddenly the government is coming into your home and saying, 'Sorry you're not doing that anymore. Sorry about your luck.'"
The Opposition Wildrose party agreed.
"Many families are asking why the minister did not take interim measures that would have allowed them to avoid the confusion created by (Tuesday’s) announcement," said education critic Mark Smith.
By mid-afternoon Wednesday, more than 1,000 had signed an online petition criticizing the government's actions.
"This is clearly an attack by this leftist government on home education in general and specifically is part of its unbridled persecution of those affiliated with Christian institutions," wrote petition-signer Laurie Lacy.
Not so, said Eggen.
"Nothing could be further from the truth. We know that the various providers of education in our province include a separate school system with private schools and home schooling, and when everything is moving as it should it's a very high quality delivery of education, and I say that time and time again as we open new Catholic schools.
"My job is to ensure that public money is being spent properly."