Local homeschoolers happy to put Trinity dispute in rearview
BY TIM KALINOWSKI ON JANUARY 7, 2017.
Local homeschoolers are breathing a sigh of relief after the provincial government’s decision Thursday to end its dispute with Trinity Christian School Association.
“We are grateful this whole thing has been resolved,” Forty Mile Christian Education Society chair Craig Funston told the News on Friday. “We know all the facilitators and staff at Trinity, and they are just people trying to put food on the table. We had one guy call us almost in tears thanking us for our involvement and support. We are relieved for them.”
Forty Mile, like Trinity, provides an accredited body for homeschoolers to link into to have their children’s education credentials regulated and validated.
Funston and wife Gwynne have homeschooled nine of their own children, and have close ties to other homeschooling organizations across the province. The Funstons, who both have teaching degrees, also work as homeschool facilitators checking in on homeschoolers to ensure they are meeting the curriculum and requirements set out by the province. In this capacity, they have had plenty of contact with Trinity parents upset by the recent dispute.
“These parents want to do what is right. They were being penalized for something that was not within their control. There was the whole spectrum of shock, distrust, disbelief and fear. There were tears. It stirred up a whole range of emotions. You felt (as a homeschooler) personally under attack,” says Funston.
Wife Gwynne agrees.
“(Trinity homeschoolers) were alarmed because they felt the government was taking away parental choice of having homeschoolers as a legal option,” she says. “We felt the NDP was intentionally antagonistic. Because it felt like this was a very heavy-handed thing to do on the basis of an audit; and based on the statements the NDP government had made in the past as well. That would have been the perception of many homeschoolers across the province.”
Funston says many misconceptions continue to exist about homeschoolers in Alberta.
“We are not just religious hermits,” states Funston. “We believe it is the parent’s right to choose what mode of education they want for their kids. If parent ‘X’ wants public, and parent ‘Y’ wants private, Christian education, we feel it’s their right … There is at least 10,000 students in Alberta who are homeschooled, and it is a very tight community.”
Gwynne is relieved cooler heads have prevailed in this current dispute, but also feels it’s going to take a long time to rebuild trust between the province and homeschoolers.
“The (government) was very heavy-handed when they came down and said let’s just shut everything down. This decision on Thursday is showing they are being a bit more reasonable, but there is still a distrust which has been created.”
Graham Thomson: Something doesn't add up in government's handling of home-schooling association
GRAHAM THOMSON, EDMONTON JOURNAL
Published on: January 6, 2017 | Last Updated: January 6, 2017 6:51 PM MST
Something here doesn’t add up.
How can the Alberta government publicly decertify a school association one day over allegations of “financial impropriety,” then recertify the association another day while the allegations still hang over the school board’s head?
Either the government recertified the association prematurely this week, or the government unfairly decertified the association in the first place back in October.
We’re talking here, of course, about the Trinity Christian School Association.
It was on Tuesday, Oct. 25, that a sombre Education Minister David Eggen called a news conference to announce he was immediately shutting down the province’s largest provider of home schooling after a government audit had discovered “significant misuse of public funding.”
The government had been giving Trinity Christian about $5.5 million a year, which was directed to a third party, Wisdom Home Schooling Society, to run the home-schooling operations.
Among the apparently troubling things discovered by the audit: Wisdom leased a modular from a “non-arm’s length party” for $105,000 a year — 10 times what the government thought reasonable.
Eggen said the “financial impropriety” was so great he was sending the audit to the RCMP for further investigation.
At the time, I said Eggen was so unhappy he looked downright sick. But I wasn’t sure if he was ill at the possibility of government money going astray, or if he was queasy at the thought of a showdown with home-schooling parents.
Politically, the latter is a much larger problem than the former — as Eggen discovered thanks to a very loud and heated reaction from parents who supported Trinity.
The association defiantly told the parents to ignore the government’s recommendation to enrol their children with another board. Keeping the fight alive, the association won a court injunction to keep the board open.
All the while, home-schooling parents — always a fiercely independent lot — accused the government of interfering with their rights to educate their children.
Thanks to a court ruling Thursday — that criticized both sides in the tussle — the government and the association have reached a truce.
Eggen recertified the organization after it agreed to be placed under a government-appointed financial adviser for the next year.
Yet, the RCMP is still investigating the government’s complaint against Trinity.
How can the government climb back into bed with an organization it apparently didn’t trust a few months ago?
You get the impression that maybe the government overreacted in October by decertifying the school association. Maybe the government should have waited.
Or, at the very least, it should have done the decertification with more tact and more planning. Instead, its abrupt move left thousands of parents and students confused.
The government should have listened more intently to the Wildrose Party, which managed to manoeuvre though this political minefield with some agility.
The official Opposition has said all along that while any financial mismanagement must be investigated and dealt with, the main focus should have been on the students, ensuring their education was not interrupted.
In a news release Thursday, the Wildrose happily gave itself a pat on the back: “The decision to appoint a financial administrator to handle their concerns surrounding financial management of the school was what Wildrose initially called for. It’s disappointing that it took months of legal battles and court filings to come to what was an obvious and appropriate solution.”
This saga is not over. If the police find evidence of wrongdoing, people will ask why the government is in bed with such a troubled organization.
If the police don’t find enough evidence to lay charges, people will ask why the government was so quick to shut down Trinity.
Either way, something doesn’t add up — and the education minister is the one doing the math.
Agreement reached between province and Trinity Christian School Association
Edmonton, Alberta / 630 CHED - Edmonton Breaking News, Traffic, Weather and Sports Radio Station
Posted: January 05, 2017 01:36 pm
The Trinity Christian School Association will continue to operate under an agreement reached in court Thursday morning.
Funding had been pulled in the fall after the results an audit report was passed to the provincial government. Education Minister David Eggen at the time claimed there had been over a million dollars in misspent funds. Some people worried it was an NDP attack on school choice.
“The government of Alberta has stated publicly that they’re dedicated to education options, one of which includes home schooling,” Trinity’s lawyer, Jay Cameron said. “At this point I don’t have any reason to doubt that. I’m certainly not going to question motivations or anything like that in regards to the closure.”
In court, the judge said he didn’t like how either side was dealing with the issue, saying it was like a married couple having a fight with no thought for the needs of the kids.
Justice E.J. Simpson said one of the questionable funeral expenses pointed out by the government turned out to be a $5 sympathy card to the family after the death of a teacher, calling it an issue a smear.
The judge also said concerns have been bubbling at Trinity and the Wisdom Home Schooling Society for years, with nothing being done on their end. He described it as self-righteous and said Trinity should have made changes earlier.
“The justice saying that they should have done it earlier, or referencing that they could have made changes earlier, that’s true,” Cameron said. “But they were in a mode of operating for 16 years and had done so with the authorization and instruction of Alberta Education. Those things have been remedied now and they can move on.
While the school board will keep running, a financial administrator will be appointed for a 12 month period. In a statement, Eggen said reaching this agreement is in the best interest of the kids.
“Our priority has been ensuring that the funding we provide for education is being used to support students. We believe that today’s agreement achieves this goal. It also ensures stability for more than 3,500 Alberta students. I stand behind the actions we have taken in this matter and officials will now move to assisting Trinity with developing governance and accounting practices that are at the standard expected by Alberta taxpayers.”
“I can commend Alberta Education for making this agreement,” Cameron said. “I think they did the right thing. I think it was the respectful thing and the best thing they could have done in the circumstances. I’m grateful for the reasonableness of it.”
As part of the deal, the WISDOM Home Schooling Society of Alberta will not be involved in making any governance or financial decisions.
The judge said two reasonable people could have met to work things out, without the time and expense of going through the courts. (kdr/bd)
Judge restores Christian homeschooling operation after Alberta NDP gov’t shutdown
LifeSiteNews – Lianne Laurence
GRANDE PRAIRIE, Alberta, January 5, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) —
An Alberta judge has approved an agreement between Alberta’s NDP government and a Christian homeschooling organization that will see the government restore funding to the organization it abruptly shut down in October over allegations of financial misconduct and breach of provincial laws.
Justice E.J. Simpson of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench signed a consent order of January 5 that directs the NDP to restore funding by January 10 to Trinity Christian School Association of Cold Lake, which oversees the homeschooling of 3,500 students, an estimated one-third of Alberta’s homeschooled students, as well as the classroom education of a dozen pupils.
However, the consent order also stipulates that the Derwent-based Wisdom Home Schooling Society, which Trinity had contracted to administer its homeschooling program, will have “no governance role or decision-making authority in the Trinity organization.”
And it directs Alberta Education to appoint and pay for a financial administrator “in good faith consultation with Trinity as to the individual selected” to “oversee Trinity for a term of twelve (12) months, the time of appointment to be extended if necessary.”
“I think it’s a fantastic resolution to what was at one point an acrimonious case,” Jay Cameron, lawyer for Trinity and Wisdom, told LifeSiteNews in a telephone interview.
“On Trinity’s side, they get their funding back,” noted Cameron. “The funds that were withheld will all be reinstated, and funding will go forward in accordance with the agreement.”
And the Alberta government now gets “additional oversight in regard to policies and procedures.”
The order Simpson approved was the fruit of some two weeks of negotiations between the Alberta government and the province’s largest homeschooling association, Cameron said, adding: “Alberta Education should be commended for coming to the table and making a good agreement that protects kids and protects parents.”
The justice, however, administered a tongue-lashing to both sides, according to a report on Newstalk 770, comparing the dispute to one between a married couple who don’t seem to care about their children.
He called it a “smear” by the government to label a $5 sympathy card a “questionable expense.” But he also blasted Trinity and Wisdom Home Schooling Society as “self righteous” for not making changes earlier, despite signs that trouble had been brewing for years.
“You’re all acting like heathens as far as I’m concerned. You could have saved taxpayers a lot of money (by mediating this privately),” Simpson stated, according to the Edmonton Journal report.
“Litigators often become positional; they fall in love with their position,” Cameron told LifeSiteNews, adding that the “judge was grateful that a resolution had been reached, but he thought that the parties could have been more reasonable sooner.”
Education Minister Dave Eggen pulled Trinity’s accreditation on October 25, 2016, effectively shutting down both Trinity and Wisdom overnight, and advised shocked parents to make other arrangements for their children.
At the time, Eggen cited a government audit that alleged Trinity contravened provincial regulations by contracting Wisdom to administer its homeschooling program. The audit also alleged that Wisdom and Trinity misused the government funds.
Each Alberta homeschooled child receives $1,670 of taxpayer funds for educational expenses. Fifty percent of this goes to the school board administering the child’s homeschooling, and the remainder can be claimed by the parents.
The government investigators alleged that Wisdom spent $5.2 million, or 90 percent, of the homeschooling grants Trinity received in 2014/2015, that money earmarked for educating students was used to fund inappropriate expenses such as babysitting, funeral expenses, and double-dipping of mileage.
The auditors alleged the board and administration of Trinity Christian School Association and Wisdom Home Schooling Society was largely represented by two families, and that “family members approved employment contracts for other family members. The total amount paid in salary to these two families is more than $2.76 million in the last three years.”
Moreover, the audit alleged that Wisdom has been leasing office space for $105,000 annually, which was estimated at roughly ten times market value.
Wisdom Home Schooling Society, for its part, issued a statement calling the investigators’ allegations “partial truths amounting to calumny,” denied all of the reputed improprieties and stated it would settle the matter in court.
“Part of the [January 5] agreement is that any leases or salaries or anything like that will be set in accordance with market values,” Cameron told LifeSiteNews. “So that’s one of the things Alberta Education gets to do, they get to look and see whether or not salaries and leases are in line with the market and if not, they can correct it.”
Moreover, the consent order directs that Trinity will employ all staff, and be responsible for all accounting functions, which will flow through a single Trinity bank account. Future provincial funding will be granted on a monthly basis.
Cameron said there is “no specific time frame” for the Alberta government to appoint a financial administrator, but emphasized that the court order requires it must do so “in good faith consultation with Trinity.”
Simpson granted an injunction in November allowing Trinity and Wisdom to continue operating, pending the January 5 hearing into funding.
In the November application, witnesses for Trinity alleged that Alberta Education personnel showed up at Trinity on October 25, but refused to identify themselves to teachers and parents, and “accosted” students by demanding their names and handing them letters.
Cameron argued then that the government’s move was “ill-considered, draconian, unlawful, in bad faith, as well as being extremely rude and inconsiderate to the parents and the children of this province,” and that the NDP government had irreparably harmed Trinity’s reputation.
Minister Eggen stated in October that he had referred the matter to the RCMP and Canada Revenue Agency, but Cameron said he could not comment on what may come of that. He emphasized that “this is an agreement that had been reached with Alberta Education.”
Critics have accused the NDP government of acting out of bias towards homeschooling given the party’s longstanding opposition to education options outside the public system. In 2013, prior to her rise to Alberta Premier, NDP leader Rachel Notley told the legislature that the NDP are “steadfastly opposed to private schooling.”
Jason Kenney, who is running for leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, lauded the decision in a tweet decrying the NDP as “irresponsible”:
Glad that a Judge has repudiated the NDP's irresponsible decision that stranded thousands of home-schooling students https://t.co/SbqSvVEJpN
— Jason Kenney ?? (@jkenney) January 5, 2017
To see the consent order go here.