Trinity Christian School takes matter to court
The Cold Lake private school that had been shut down by Alberta Education has been granted a temporary court injunction allowing it to continue operating, albeit without public funding, until an application to reverse the education minister’s decision can be heard in January.
Alberta Education had shut down the Trinity Christian School Association on Oct. 25 after an investigation turned up alleged questionable spending and conflicts of interest.
In its application for an injunction, filed with the Court of Queen’s Bench in Grande Prairie, Trinity sought a declaration that the decision to cancel the accreditation and funding of its school “is unreasonable, violates the principles of natural justice, is contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or is otherwise invalid.”
Supervising home education for 3,500 students across the province, Trinity is Alberta’s largest supervisor of home education. Alberta Education alleges that the school has failed to provide appropriate supervision and demonstrate accountability for public funds. Trinity contracted out the supervision of home schooling students to the Wisdom Home Schooling Society, an agency Trinity established.
In a letter to school board chair Lynn Gullackson, sent Oct. 25, Alberta Education deputy minister Curtis Clarke says his decision to cancel Trinity’s registration as a private school is final.
“Trinity has failed to demonstrate that it has the ability or willingness to oversee an education program, or to properly account for its spending of public funds,” Clarke wrote.
Trinity’s application for the injunction says that Wisdom was created in 1997 to provide home education administration at the request of Alberta Education and that Alberta Education has since reviewed Trinity’s curriculum and finances “from time to time” while approving that Trinity and Wisdom continue operations.
However, in July 2016, citing “serious concerns,” Education Minister David Eggen ordered a financial review of Trinity. The subsequent report to the minister, authored by department staff, outlines evidence of alleged failures to comply with government regulations and to demonstrate accountability for public funds. The report recommends that, “the Deputy Minister cancel Trinity’s accreditation and registration commencing immediately.”
Parents advised to re-register
The government had advised parents of affected students to re-register with another public or private school authority. Trinity denied the accusations contained in the report and advised parents to “await the intervention of the Courts prior to taking steps to find new placements for their students.”
Alberta regulations allow parents to home-school their children as long as the program is supervised by a public, separate or francophone school jurisdiction or an accredited private school. Regulations require parents to develop an education program with defined outcomes, but those programs don’t have to follow Alberta’s programs of study. The associate board or private school is then required to approve the educational program, have teachers evaluate student progress at least twice a year and maintain student records for the home-schooled students.
Alberta Education provides $1,671 in funding to the associate board or private school for each home-schooling student it supervises. The supervising authority is required to offer at least half of the funding to parents to defray the costs associated with the instruction of the students, but that funding cannot be used to pay remuneration to the parents or to pay for travel costs that would normally be borne by a parent at a traditional school. The report alleges that Wisdom was charging parents to provide its online and mediated learning courses and allowing parents to use their grants to pay the tuition, a practice the report says is inconsistent with regulations.
Alberta Education’s allegations that Trinity failed to appropriately supervise home education students arose because Trinity didn’t employ teachers to conduct student evaluations. Instead, the report says, Trinity transferred 90 per cent of the funding it received from government to the third party Wisdom Home Schooling Society, which contracted certificated teachers as “facilitators” to supervise the home-school programs.
The Alberta Education report says this approach is “inconsistent with legislation,” which calls for the supervising teachers to be employed by the school authority. Clarke’s letter says that Alberta Education advised Trinity directly in February 2014 that this arrangement was in direct breach of regulations.
Trinity denies accuracy of financial review
Further allegations about failed accountability for public funds raised by Alberta Education in its report relate to questions about leases, capital transactions, administrative compensation and administrative costs. In its application for an injunction, Trinity and the other applicants state they “contest and deny the accuracy, findings and recommendations” of the report.
Trinity and Wisdom lease space in two buildings in the Cold Lake area. Trinity’s 2014/15 audited financial statements show that Wisdom’s director Kenneth Noster was paid $105,000 in that school year for rent on premises that he owned.
The Alberta Education report says that this 2,600-square-foot space, used as office space for Wisdom, started as a school portable costing $12,000 and while there have been improvements and upgrades made to the building, Wisdom has paid $493,800 over four years on the lease for this space. The report suggests a more appropriate lease rate would be “almost one tenth of the rate being charged to Wisdom.”
According to the report, a second 6,600 square foot space is leased from Living Water College of the Arts, another organization run by Noster. Trinity allegedly pays a $10,800 annual lease for the facility, which it built with public funds and then sold to Living Water 10 years ago. Alberta Education’s report says that Trinity started constructing the facility in 2001, used $560,000 of funding from the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement to fund construction and then sold the building to Living Water for $150,000 in the fall of 2006.
The Alberta Education review says that the “boards and administration of both Trinity and Wisdom are largely represented by two families” and that their review found numerouswinstances of family members approving and paying employment contracts for other family members.
According to the 2014/15 audited financial statements, Noster and his relatives received nearly $830,000, all combined, for services and expenses that year, including the rent paid for the office building. The Alberta Education report says that total compensation to members of the two families exceeded $2.76 million over a three-year period.
While Trinity School receives $5.4 million in annual funding from Alberta Education, the report alleges that 90 per cent of the education grant funding is sent by Wisdom in lump sum payments that follow the same timing as Alberta Education grants sent to Trinity. The report charges that, “Trinity was not able to demonstrate any oversight by Trinity of the administration of the parent portion of the grant” and that “all financial policies are set by Wisdom.”
Because Wisdom is charging fees for programming it offers to students and parents, the report alleges that Trinity is not making the required 50 per cent of funding available to parents. The report says that, over three years, Wisdom has accumulated $988,000 in unclaimed funding for parents. ❚