Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Alberta government orders closure of Christian home schooling association amid allegations of financial impropriety

I don't know which side is telling the truth, but it's an item in the news.

As reported by Lucie Edwardson of Metro News, October 25, 2016 (links in original):

An Alberta home-schooling association has been ousted for allegedly pocketing nearly $1 million taxpayer dollars from Alberta Education that was meant to fund the education of thousands of students.

According to the ministry of education, Trinity Christian School Association is suspected siphoning government funds for years.

Effective immediately, the ministry has cancelled their registration and accreditation as a private school operator.

Minister of Education David Eggen said the decision to close the school comes after an audit of Trinity’s financials, which found numerous issues and determined that public funding was directed to a third party, Wisdom Home Schooling Society.

“The decision to cancel accreditation and registration from Trinity Christian School Association was made out of respect for taxpayers and the many families who entrusted this school to properly account for the funding granted for the purposes of their children’s education,” Eggen said.

Alberta Education said they will provide the findings of their review to both the Canada Revenue Agency and the RCMP to allow them to determine if further investigation is warranted.

According to Alberta Education, issues include conflict of interest involving senior management and related-party transactions, including terms of employment contracts and terms of leases with related parties.

They said inappropriate expenses were also found for things not limited to babysitting, funeral expenses and “double dipping” of mileage.

The financial audit also found that Wisdom — who is not the grant recipient — had retained $988,000 in “unclaimed parent funding” for the last three years.

“Our government is committed to supporting Alberta’s students and to ensuring that as much public funding as possible is being directed to the classroom, whether that classroom is in a home or in a bricks-and-mortar school,” Eggen said.

Alberta Education said they have also determined that Trinity hasn’t demonstrated appropriate accountability for the supervision of its home-education program or for public funds.

They said this is due to issues including the transfer of responsibility and supervision of their home-education program and accountability for government funding to Wisdom Home Schooling Society of Alberta.

Wisdom responded directly to many of the allegations on its website.

It claims that it has always overseen Trinity's operations for 21 years, that it has undergone routine financial audits, and that it retained the $988,000 in unclaimed funding because it is supposed to hold onto those funds as per Alberta Education mandates.

There are currently 13 in-school students and almost 3,500 home-education students registered with TCSA for the current school year.

Alberta Education said their staff will be made available to help students register in an alternative public or private school.

Further information for affected families is available on Alberta Education’s website.
As reported by Lucie Edwardson of Metro News, October 26, 2016 (bold in original, links inserted by blogger):

The principal and superintendent of an Alberta school association that was stripped of their registration and accreditation Tuesday said they were blindsided by the closure.

Richard Scheinbein, principal and superintendent of the Trinity Christian School Association which was shut down by Alberta Education due to alleged “financial impropriety,” was shocked by the ministry’s decision.

The comment comes after a government review alleges that nearly $1 million in funds supposed to be returned to parents is apparently listed as revenue for Wisdom Home Schooling Society, which is contracted by Trinity to run their home-education program.

“To tell you the truth I don’t know what’s going on—if we have an enemy there or not—but for the last 10-15 years, every year we’ve had this kind of stuff, and every year it passes,” Scheinbein said.

Education Minister David Eggen announced the decision to close the school citing a financial review of the last three years.

“These are very concerning financial practices,” Eggen said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference in Edmonton.

According to Alberta Education, 3,500 of the 11,000 home-educated students in the province were registered to TCSA’s home-schooling program with Wisdom—which has no legal relationship with the ministry. An additional 13 students attend Trinity in a classroom setting.

“The scale is quite large,” said Eggen.

Family ties

The minister said familial relationships within the school and positions of power were also concerning.

According to the websites of both Trinity and Wisdom, members of the Noster and Bekolay families serve on both boards and are also employed by Wisdom.

The websites indicate that husband and wife Kenneth and Marlane Noster are on the Wisdom board, while Kenneth sits on both boards.

Their son, Saul Noster, is listed as Wisdom’s financial services administrator since 2012.

Metro tried various methods to reach the aforementioned members of the Noster family, but no calls were returned by print deadline.

Audit documents provided by Alberta Education show that Trinity and Wisdom spent approximately 32 per cent of expenses on payments and administration compared to 3.4 to 5.6 per cent range in public school boards.

Although names have been redacted, the document indicated the majority of administration salaries went to members of two families—with total compensation to all members of the two families exceeding $2.76 million over three years.

The audit

Eggen said the review of Trinity financials took place after the school got a new auditor who raised red flags with the ministry.

The minister said through the audit it became obvious that money wasn’t being spent efficiently and that third party contractor—Wisdom—was handling most of the money.

Eggen said their review found inappropriate leases between Trinity and Wisdom, where they were leasing their own properties to themselves at 10 times the market rate, as well as spending money on alcohol, parties and gift-certificates.

“There’s a whole long litany of improprieties,” Eggen said. “They weren’t doing bank reconciliations on a monthly basis—which is the most basic thing you need to do to ensure transparency—so we felt a call to act.”

The audit also noted that in reviewing Trinity and Wisdom’s records they found Trinity’s practices were inconsistent with legislation.

The 13 certificated teachers referred by Wisdom as ‘facilitators’ are paid by Wisdom as independent contractors and aren’t employees at either organization— and Trinity didn’t pay any of the home education facilitators in the periods under review, according to the audit.

Further, the one certified teacher paid by Trinity for the 13 in-school students has no employment contract—all of which goes against the School Act, according to the government.

Wisdom parents question government motives for closure

Members of the Wisdom Home Schooling Society’s parent advisory council said not even Wisdom saw the closure of Trinity Christian School Association coming.

Susanne and David Knoch said they were waiting to hear from Alberta Education at a telephone conference town hall, Tuesday evening, about the closure before making any decisions.

“It’s a total shock. It’s an absolute shock. This is like a sideswipe, not even Wisdom saw it coming,” said David.

But, the couple said they question the government’s objectives.

“We know the NDP government hasn’t been especially welcoming—we’ve just questioned their motives,” said Susanne, when asked if she was referring to Bill 10.

They said throughout the audit Wisdom has fully cooperated with the government.

“The Alberta government has been speaking very favourably to Wisdom,” said Susanne. “Wisdom has been so cooperative, they’ve responded to all their demands, and the government even said thank you.”

She added that the closure of the school in this fashion is “just so unethical based on what the communication has been up until now.”
And Wisdom's response:

WISDOM Shutdown - Statement

WISDOM ALERT
October 25, 2016

Dear Parents,

WISDOM/Trinity has been shut down by AB Education. They announced this with a press release filled with partial truths amounting to calumny.

You are being told to give notification to another school for this year, but we are encouraging you not to do anything yet. Over the next few days the WISDOM Parent Advisory Council will communicate suggestions regarding your options.

Here is a brief overview of the AB Education allegations and our responses.

AB Education has shut down our school. They make untrue claims:

Trinity Christian School has neglected to adequately supervise home schooling.

Response: WISDOM has been Trinity’s home education administration for 21 years. In fact, in 1997 AB Education mandated the establishment of WISDOM Home Schooling Society. Through its WISDOM office, Trinity has administrated home schooling in an exemplary manner.

Alberta Education will be providing the findings of its review to both Canada Revenue Agency and the RCMP so those agencies can determine whether further investigation is warranted….

Response: There has been a transparent financial audit of Trinity/WISDOM every year, and AB Education has conducted many additional audits. Every income and expense is meticulously recorded and accounted for.

The review also uncovered that Wisdom – which is not the grant recipient – had retained $988,000 in unclaimed parent funding over the past three years.

Response: AB Education mandates that unclaimed funding stay with the school. Since WISDOM is Trinity’s home education administration, it is logical that WISDOM retained unspent funds and used them on home education programing.

Alberta Education also determined that Trinity has not demonstrated sufficient accountability for the supervision of its home-education program or for public funds, including transferring its responsibility for supervision of its home-education program — and accountability for government funding — to Wisdom Home Schooling Society of Alberta.

Response: AB Education has arbitrarily determined that the work of WISDOM is not the work of Trinity. All allegations are based upon this false assumption.
October 28, 2016 update: As reported by Lucie Edwardson of Metro News, October 27, 2016 (bold, link in original):

A review into a Christian school board by the Alberta government shows that a “hard deadline,” set by a third-party for parents to request unused government funds be carried over to the following year goes against the School Act.

Alberta education says this resulted in nearly $1 million in funds not returned to parents.

Education Minister David Eggen shut down Trinity Christian School Association, in northern Alberta, and Wisdom Homeschooling Tuesday due to alleged “financial impropriety."

They catered to 3,500 home-schooled students across the province and 13 students in a classroom setting.

Metro reached out Wednesday to employees at both Trinity and Wisdom, and only one responded. Jim Burgess of Wisdom’s financial services said little but that they are considering legal action.

On Tuesday, Metro spoke with Trinity principal Richard Scheinbein who said they’d submitted financial reports to Alberta Education annually with no issues.

According to the review released Tuesday, Wisdom’s policy is that unused monies from the parent portion of the government grant will only be carried to the next year if a form requesting the carry over is received by the set deadline of June 30.

“Otherwise it will end up in the general revenue of Wisdom and unavailable for parents the following year. Any late forms received are not accepted as this is a hard deadline” reads the report.

Metro confirmed this was Wisdom’s policy as it is on their website, also indicating this deadline is imposed by Alberta Education.

“In fact, this deadline is an in-house deadline and is not based on provincial legislation, regulation or policy,” said the report.

Eggen said Tuesday another concern raised during the review of Trinity and Wisdom was inappropriate leases.

According to the report, although a lease with Living Water Arts Foundation – which was founded by Wisdom founders Kenneth and Marlane Noster— was considered a reasonable rate, questions were raised as to why Wisdom paid an annual lease plus utilities for a facility that isn’t used all year.

Again, Metro reached out to the Noster family and calls were not returned.

The facility was constructed using government grants paid to Trinity (approximately $0.5M), then reportedly sold ‘by’ Trinity at a loss, to Living Water only to be leased back to Wisdom, said the report.

Further, the report indicates that Trinity’s audited financial statements are inconsistent with facts about the sale of the land.

The financial statements said the sale occurred in 2006-07, yet not transfer of land happened until 2008, was only for $1 and was never owned by Trinity, but the Noster family.

Petition demands reinstatement of Trinity accreditation

A change.org petition has been launched by supporters of Trinity Christian School Association – and third party Wisdom Homeschooling – saying they’re “under attack” and demanding their reinstatement, after their accreditation was taken away Tuesday by Alberta’s education ministry.

The petition, created by Adam Soos, calls the actions of Education Minister David Eggen and his ministry “reckless” and says they “undermined the education of some 3,500 Albertan home-schooled students.”

The petition, which set a goal of 1,500 signatures had been signed 1,195 times and includes signatures from Wisdom's financial services head, Saul Noster who also made social media posts about the issue Wednesday with #WeStandWithWisdom.

Hundreds of people have commented on the petition calling Eggen’s decision anti-Christian.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Eggen. “We know that the various education providers in our province include the separate school system with private schools and home schooling, and when everything is moving as it should it’s a very high quality of education.”
As reported by Lucie Edwardson of Metro News, October 27, 2016 (links in original):

Parents who have used the northern Alberta home-education company Wisdom Homeschooling Society are coming to their defence using social media and a petition.

Education Minister David Eggen shut down Trinity Christian School Association, in northern Alberta, and Wisdom Homeschooling Tuesday due to alleged “financial impropriety."

They catered to 3,500 home-schooled students across the province and 13 students in a classroom setting.

Allegations against Trinity/Wisdom from Alberta’s education ministry include that Wisdom created a false fee deadline that’s in conflict with the School Act. The deadline required parents to fill out a form before the deadline to get reimbursed.

As a result, Alberta Education said in nearly $1 million was not returned to parents.

Despite these allegations, many supporters are calling the move by the NDP unfair and anti-Christian.

Metro reported Wednesday about the petition launched to have the accreditation reinstated and the #WeStandWithWisdom social media hashtag being used by supporters.

Brian Holdsworth took to Facebook to post an email he sent to Minister of Education David Eggen following the decision, Tuesday. Holdsworth argued the ministry wouldn’t have taken “such heavy-handed action” had Trinity/Wisdom been a “conventional school board.”

“If a superintendent was caught making accounting errors (or at worst corrupt kickbacks), you wouldn’t close down the school board in the middle of a semester,” he wrote. “You’d pressure the superintendent to resign and get the organization running properly.”

Holdsworth said there should be “some kind of due process,” and the allegations should be investigated and the accused should have an opportunity to make a legal defence .

Another parent, Shayne Neal, wrote a blog post about the ordeal titled: How can someone care so little about our youth?

In the post, he lays out a number of his concerns, and stated that although Alberta Education has encouraged parents to register their kids with another accredited school board, he will not.

“As I am concerned I can just send my paperwork into Education Minister David Eggen since he closed down the school that was allowed to accept it for the past 21 years,” he wrote.

On Wednesday Eggen again reiterated that parents should take this step so that they are able to get the funding meant for their child.

Trinity/Wisdom released a statement Thursday saying they will be retaining legal counsel to fight the claims made by Alberta Education.

The message also said the association will continue to advise parents of further developments and deny the accusation of misappropriating funds from Alberta Education.

“WISDOM's holding of funds on behalf of Trinity is neither illegal nor deceptive, a fact that is expected to be substantiated by the Courts in the days ahead.”
As reported by Josie Lukey of Metro News, October 27, 2016:

The Alberta school association at the centre of allegations by Alberta Education of financial impropriety will fight the loss of accreditation through legal channels.

On Tuesday, Alberta Education Minister David Eggen stripped the Trinity Christian School Assocation in northern Alberta, of its license and accreditation after a review that looked at the association for three years was released outlining areas of concern in the board's financial reporting.

According to a message to parents posted on Trinity’s website, they will be retaining legal counsel to fight the claims made by Alberta Education.

“Trinity and WISDOM remain committed to the provision of education in the province of Alberta and hope to be in a position to resume operations soon,” the statement read.

The message also said the association will continue to advise parents of further developments and deny the accusation of misappropriating funds from Alberta Education.

“WISDOM's holding of funds on behalf of Trinity is neither illegal nor deceptive, a fact that is expected to be substantiated by the Courts in the days ahead.”
November 8, 2016 update: As reported by Svjetlana Mlinarevic of the Grande Prairie Daily Herald Tribune, November 5, 2016:

A small Cold Lake private school and society overseeing a third of Alberta’s home-schooled students will reopen Monday after a judge temporarily set aside the government’s move to cancel their accreditation.

Grande Prairie Court of Queen’s Bench Justice E. J. Simpson granted a temporary injunction Friday that allows Trinity Christian School Association and its contractor, Wisdom Home Schooling, to oversee students’ education until a hearing on Jan. 5. The education minister revoked Trinity’s accreditation Oct. 25, alleging financial mismanagement.

Simpson also ruled Alberta Education can withhold funding from Trinity while it operates for the next six weeks.

“I’m very pleased with the decision. It reinstates the status quo, with the exception of funding, and it ensures that the parents and the students who have been tremendously disrupted by this ill-considered decision will continue to have a school to go to until Jan. 5 at the least,” said Jay Cameron, Trinity’s lawyer.

The ruling is not a final decision on the merits of the case, Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen said in a Friday afternoon statement.

“We stand behind the actions that we have taken to date based on the evidence made public in the audit,” Eggen wrote.

An investigation by the education ministry alleged that during the last three years, Wisdom had misused public education dollars on alcohol, gifts, gift cards, parties, babysitting costs, and funeral expenses.

Almost all the money given to Trinity was redirected to Wisdom, where alleged financial irregularities included lavish per diems, double dipping on mileage and travel expenses, and employment contracts to family members.

The province also contends Wisdom improperly held back $988,000 in grant money that should have flowed to parents for home-schooling costs.

The government reported its findings to RCMP and the Canada Revenue Agency.

Although contracting out home-schooling services is legal, Eggen has said it leaves school authorities vulnerable to misconduct.

Trinity and Wisdom refute all allegations of financial impropriety.

The judge said his move to temporarily restore accreditation was to allow children to continue with their education until the Christmas break. Simpson said Trinity will have to re-state its case to stay open after January, when court will hear arguments about Trinity’s alleged misuse of funds.

The judge also ordered Trinity to turn over the records of 160 students who have enrolled with a new school or school board.

In a statement, Trinity Christian School/Wisdom Home Schooling said it is grateful for the interim ruling.

“Alberta Education’s imposition of the closure upon the families of 3,500 students, without due process, has been overturned today by due process. The rights of parents, upheld by the Canadian Charter, have been upheld by the Court of Queen’s Bench,” the statement said.

In his arguments, Cameron told the judge the government’s move to yank accreditation 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.”

He also said government had done irreparable harm to Trinity’s reputation.

In their application for an injunction, Trinity and Wisdom said people from Alberta Education showed up at the 13-pupil school in Cold Lake Oct. 25, refused to identify themselves to teachers and parents, “accosted” students by demanding their names and handing them letters.

Some home-schooling parents objected to being informed of the shutdown by robocalls, and being suddenly told to register their children with another school.

Parents can continue to home school their children while they look for a new place to enrol their children, the ministry has said. There are 45 other public and private schools and districts in Alberta that accept home schooled students.

The judge requested the next court date be held in Cold Lake or Edmonton.
As reported by Dean Bennett of Canadian Press, November 7, 2016:

EDMONTON — The Alberta government says it will continue to cover the costs of textbooks and other incidentals for thousands of home-schooled students caught in the middle of a funding fight.

A spokesman for Education Minister David Eggen says parents who are having their children home-schooled through the Trinity Christian School Association can soon send their receipts to the government for reimbursement.

Parents of home-schooled children can get slightly more than $800 reimbursed a year for items such as textbooks.

"We're setting up a process where in the interim at least they can go directly through Alberta Education for that funding," spokesman Jeremy Nolais said in an interview Monday.

Nolais said the department will have the reimbursement plan running this week or next.

The province is currently embroiled in a court fight with Trinity, which had been receiving more than $5 million a year from the province to oversee 3,500 home-schooled students along with 13 others being taught in a school in Cold Lake.

That's about one-third of all home-schooled children in the province...

...Each home-schooled student in Alberta receives $1,670 a year to be distributed by the agency that oversees the education, which in this case would be Trinity.

Half of that $1,670 is to go to parents for textbooks and other education-related expenses, while the rest goes for administration and oversight.

Nolais confirmed the other half of that $1,670, which normally goes to Trinity, will not be paid.

Ken Noster, an associate principal at Trinity and the administrator of Wisdom, could not be reached for comment.

The province is urging parents with Trinity to get their students signed up with other boards. Nolais said so far about 135 students have done so.

During question period in the legislature Monday, Opposition Wildrose member Angela Pitt said the government has handled the situation poorly and families are paying the price.

"The minister and this NDP government need to start thinking more about the human impact their heavy-handed governance has on everyday Albertans," Pitt told the house.

Eggen closed Trinity based on the audit, which said the senior ranks of both Trinity and Wisdom 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 also said that almost all the money given to Trinity was redirected to Wisdom, where multiple financial irregularities included lavish per diems, double dipping on mileage and travel expenses, and employment contracts to other family members.

It said taxpayer money was used for alcohol, gifts, gift cards, pizza, parties, babysitting costs and funeral expenses.

The report stated that over the last three years, Wisdom improperly held back $988,000 that was to go to parents for home-schooling.
February 2, 2017 update:
As reported by Lucie Edwardson of Metro News, January 5, 2017:

Trinity Christian School Association is back in business—but this time without the controversial WISDOM Home Schooling Society.

Back in October, the home-schooling association was shut down by the province after they alleged the group pocketed nearly $1 million taxpayer dollars from Alberta Education that was meant to fund the education of thousands of students. Trinity's registration and accreditation as a private school operator was canceled.

A deal reached between Alberta Education and Trinity Christian School Association means additional oversight of operations, and stability for more than 3,500 students, according to the province—but it also means WISDOM will no longer be involved in any of the governance or financial involvement in the education of students.

In a news release, the province said the agreement filed in a Grand Prairie court Thursday is the end of the legal battle between Alberta Education and Trinity.

Education Minister David Eggen said they will appoint a financial administrator, for at least a year, to help Trinity’s board of directors in developing financial policies and practices that meet taxpayer expectations. The administrator will also have oversight over public funding directed to Trinity.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley echoed these sentiments at a press conference Thursday and said the administrator will play a vital role in ensuring funds reach students (although she couldn’t say how much the administrator would cost Alberta Education).

“They’ll be tasked with making sure they have the proper procedures in place, so everyone can see transparently where the money is going,” she said.

When Trinity was shut down in October, Alberta Education said they would be providing the findings of their review to both the Canada Revenue Agency and the RCMP to allow them to determine if further investigation is warranted.

“In terms of other investigations by the RCMP of CRA, those folks will determine the outcomes of their investigations and the government has no influence over that,” said Ganley.
Click on the link to see the Trinity Christian School Association Consent Order.

Graham Thomson offered a critical view of the whole affair in his column in the Edmonton Journal, January 6, 2017:

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.

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