Anticipated court scrap between government and home schoolers ends with whimper, not bang

Posted on January 06, 2017, 1:51 am
8 mins

PHOTOS: The school run by the Trinity Christian School Association in Cold Lake (photo from the group’s website). Below: Alberta Education Minister David Eggen, Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley, NDP MLA Heather Sweet, and Progressive Conservative Party interim Leader Ric McIver.

The resolution yesterday of the much-anticipated cage fight between Alberta’s NDP Government and a home-schoolers’ association beloved of the conservative opposition was disappointingly anti-climactic.

Instead of the scheduled court battle in the oilpatch servicing city of Grande Prairie, the parties meekly announced they had reached an agreement in which the Trinity Christian School Association would be able to continue operating, albeit subject fairly severe and significant restrictions.

eggenTo howls of protest from opposition parties, Alberta’s NDP Government shut down Trinity and withdrew its accreditation on Oct. 25. The government cited findings of an audit that suggested the association hadn’t properly supervised its home schooling programs or fully accounted for some of the $5.6 million in public funds it had received in the current school year. Some of that money was supposed to have been passed back to parents to assist with the cost of educating their children at home, and apparently wasn’t.

In November, an Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench judge in Grande Prairie gave Trinity a temporary injunction allowing it to continue operating, although without most government funds, until yesterday’s scheduled hearing.

Yesterday, the parties came to court with the agreement in hand and, when the dust settled, Trinity’s funding had been restored, although not without significant conditions.

A close analysis of the deal suggests the government was in fact nearly not as agreeable as it seems at first glance, and got pretty much what it wanted. But it got it, alas, in a way that will allow its political opponents to disingenuously claim it backed down because it was wrong – and have no doubt they will do just that – instead of the exemplary knockout the situation required.

Ah well, that is the mature style Rachel Notley’s NDP Government prefers – even if it won’t do it much good come election day in 2019.

ganleyInstead of proclaiming that the agreement the parties announced yesterday morning assures parents of home-schooled children they would get the educational support funds they were entitled to by law, the government’s news release was headlined “deal ensures stability for Trinity students.” (Emphasis added.)

If the other aspects of the agreement were indeed required – as Trinity’s acquiescence to the deal suggests – then I’m not certain stability is what the situation called for. A shakeup, more like.

Call it what you will, however, the document calls for the removal of the Wisdom Home Schooling Society from Trinity’s operations. Wisdom, readers will recall, was a separate entity apparently run by members of the same families as Trinity in the hamlet of Derwent to which the job of providing home schooling services was sub-contracted by the association.

The two entities together were responsible for overseeing curriculum for about 3,500 home schooled students – said to be about a third of the home schooled students in Alberta and, it is reasonable to speculate, the bulk of those who are home schooled for religious reasons. Trinity also runs a private school with about a dozen students in Cold Lake.

In addition, the government will appoint a financial administrator “for at least one year” to oversee Trinity’s operations – or, as Education Minister David Eggen oh-so-gently explained it in the news release, to assist Trinity “with developing governance and accounting practices that are at the standard expected by Alberta taxpayers.”

What this really means was elsewhere in the government news release: “The financial administrator will also have oversight over public funding directed to Trinity.”

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley made many of the same points in similarly mild language at a news conference that was held in Calgary, about as far from the action as possible.

Muddled news reports from Grande Prairie quoted Queen’s Bench Justice E.J. Simpson giving both parties a scolding for wasting taxpayer funds by going to court when in his view the dispute should have been easy to settle. He is said to have criticized the government for making an issue of a picayune expense improperly charged by Trinity, a sum of less than $5.

It should be possible to clarify what the judge had in mind when a transcript is available. In the circumstances, it is hard to understand how the government could have protected taxpayers’ money without going to court.

+ + +

All hands to damage control! Ethics Commissioner rules PC leader in conflict of interest

sweetWhen Heather Sweet, NDP MLA for Edmonton-Manning, complained in November to the provincial ethics commissioner that interim Progressive Conservative Party Leader Ric McIver had broken conflict of interest rules with a question he asked in the Legislature about electricity markets, it seemed like not much more than a warning shot across the bow of the former governing party.

Ms. Sweet’s problem was that Mr. McIver’s wife had a financial interest in a private company that sold electricity contracts and thus the PC interim leader’s question could be perceived as trying to help his wife’s business.

Well – all Tory hands to damage control! – if it was intended as a mere warning, Ms. Sweet’s shot struck its target anyway.mciver

In a report released Wednesday, Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler ruled Mr. McIver was indeed in breach of the Conflicts of Interest Act.

However, since the size of the interest is small, and because it was likely Mr. McIver “was more interested in scoring political points than worried about his wife’s business,” Ms. Trussler opted to let him off with a tap on the wrist.

“It is my recommendation that an apology to the Legislative Assembly by Mr. McIver and a fine of $500 is an appropriate penalty for the breach of this act,” she wrote in her report. “In the future, Mr. McIver should recuse himself from any question period activity, debate or vote in relation to the electrical utility industry in Alberta for as long as his wife continues to have her business.”

The opposition position, I am sure, is now that the case is closed. I imagine it would be somewhat different if the shoe were on the other foot.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

33 Comments to: Anticipated court scrap between government and home schoolers ends with whimper, not bang

  1. Sam Gunsch

    January 6th, 2017

    re: ‘instead of the exemplary knockout the situation required.

    Ah well, that is the mature style Rachel Notley’s NDP Government prefers – even if it won’t do it much good come election day in 2019.’
    ============

    Ain’t that the truth.

    A cynic would probably guess there must be a lot of home-schoolers in Calgary.
    Must be among the most powerful special interests in Alberta.

    Reply
  2. Farmer B

    January 6th, 2017

    So if Ric McIver’s wife has a business that sells electricity contracts and this ruling says he then can’t comment on them in the legislature how does this apply to the Premier? Her husband is employed as a communications official for CUPE, if you agree with this ruling then our Premier should not be allowed to comment on legislation pertaining to organized labour. Personally I think Ric McIver did nothing wrong.

    Reply
    • Rocky

      January 6th, 2017

      Ethics Commissioner Trussler, who was appointed by the Progressive Conservatives by the way, spent 20 years on the bench. She’s bound to be a better judge of what’s appropriate and what isn’t than an anonymous “farmer.” Farmer probably thinks that because a New Democrat MLA’s spouse is, say, a woman, they shouldn’t be allowed to comment on women’s rights. The obvious difference between this illustration or Farmer’s disingenuous example is that Mr. McIver’s spouse stood to make a direct pecuniary gain from the policy he was urging on the government. Like most Conservatives, I imagine Farmer thinks the rules should only be for other people. Clearly Mr. McIver did something wrong, and clearly, as the commissioner’s recommendation suggests, it wasn’t very serious in the great scheme of things.

      Reply
    • Athabascan

      January 6th, 2017

      For once I tend to agree with Farmer B on this one.

      I guess the ethics commission wanted to make it look like they were on top of this. I mean, how serious is a $500 fine anyway? He will likely find a way for his party to pay the fine.

      I bet there are many more egregious conflict of interest cases to go after than this one. God forbid the ethics commission should actually look into the business of Wildrose caucus members.

      By the way, how’s the tobacco-gate, involving Redford and her husband’s law firm, investigation coming along?

      Reply
    • MgS

      January 6th, 2017

      You’re not so familiar with the concept of “insider trading” are you? A communications officer in a union doesn’t exactly have much opportunity to profit directly from whatever was discussed at the dinner table. Someone who sells electricity contracts for a living (or owns a business that does so) can profit _very_ directly.

      Second, it raises the question: Is McIver representing his constituents, or is he representing his wife’s (and therefore his) business interests?

      Lastly, in politics the matter of ethics is both about “doing the right thing”, but also being seen to do so. Even the perception of conflicting interests is highly problematic.

      Reply
      • St Albertan

        January 6th, 2017

        MGS
        Ethics is about the right action. Philosophy is about determining what that is. Courage is about what one does with what one knows. Cowardice?
        When I was a conservative I thought; oh well they’ll come to their senses. Now, I’ll vote NDP in Alberta ’til I die likely.

        Reply
    • Bob Raynard

      January 6th, 2017

      Farmer B is, I assume, correct about what Rachel Notley is, or should be, allowed to do. That said, in the absence of any condemnation from the ethics commissioner, I can only assume that Ms. Notley has been following whatever rules the ethics commissioner has set out for her. Assuming Rocky is correct about Ms Trussle being a PC appointee, it certainly is not likely she is biased toward the NDP. Furthermore I cannot imagine the PCs and the Wildrosers not complaining if Ms. Notley did step out of line.

      Reply
      • Expat Albertan

        January 7th, 2017

        My thoughts exactly… if the opposition is worried about an NDP conflict of interest, they are free to file a complaint and get a ruling.

        Reply
  3. political ranger

    January 6th, 2017

    Again, the Notley gov’t disappoints. The values espoused by this group takes a back seat to popularity, again. In this, the NDP are no different than the Klien PC’s.
    Whatever it takes to keep the mob quiet, regardless of ethics, morality or legality.

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      January 6th, 2017

      I agree. This seems to be a pattern of theirs. Do they know they have a majority government and that they are in charge?

      By appeasing this group of kooks do they know they haven’t gained any additional support or votes for the next election? It’s not like the home schooled group will ever vote NDP is it?

      Reply
      • Expat Albertan

        January 7th, 2017

        No, but there is the added concern of trying to ensure that students’ schooling is disrupted as little as possible.

        Reply
  4. tom in ontario

    January 6th, 2017

    From the CBC Calgary news website,

    “Jay Cameron, a Calgary lawyer who represented Trinity in court, said Thursday that the dispute resolution was in the interests of both parties and praised them for making it work.

    ‘It’s huge for the families of the students since they had nowhere to go to school the next day,’ said Cameron.”

    Um, I have no experience in home schooling so I wonder what Trinity’s legal beagle meant. Does home schooling mean schooling at home? After breakfast do the children need a ride by motorized vehicle or ox cart to the dining room table or wherever classes are held for the day?

    Reply
    • Lars

      January 6th, 2017

      That’s an interesting image.

      Reply
  5. anon

    January 6th, 2017

    It is a wonder Notley and Eggan can even sit down; they have had their asses handed to them so many times now by the fascists who really run this province. Ganley can’t even see that the people making death threats against our Premier and others are prosecuted. I guess the NDP will be appealing to a whole new base come the next election.
    What a bunch of losers.

    Reply
    • St Albertan

      January 6th, 2017

      Try taking the 3rd largest economy in Canada from 80 years of robotic right wing rule. When you’ve fixed it in 2 years let me know. I’ll invite you over for a cookie!

      Reply
      • anon

        January 7th, 2017

        The NDP have failed to use the political power they were given to make change. Their cowardice is being spun as “collaborative and mature.” Ask yourself who they are collaborating with.

        The NDP have failed to clean the government house and the same creeps who enjoyed impunity under the PCs are still running the show in rural Alberta where all the resources and money are made. Enjoy your P3 ring road.

        Reply
  6. Louise

    January 6th, 2017

    As I understand it, the Alberta government went to court only because Trinity/Wisdom TOOK them to court, alleging that the government’s allegations were untrue. Apparently the judge agreed with Trinity/WISDOM on at least the funeral expenses (the $5 sympathy card). As I see it, Trinity had little choice but to go to court; the government was holding all the cards and all the power.

    One does wonder why the government settled out of court if it was so sure of its position on all of this? As Doug Cooper commented in the Edmonton Journal comment section on the related article:

    As I understand it, the Alberta government went to court only because Trinity/Wisdom TOOK them to court, alleging that the government’s allegations were untrue. Apparently the judge agreed with Trinity/WISDOM on at least the funeral expenses (the $5 sympathy card). As I see it, Trinity had little choice but to go to court; the government was holding all the cards and all the power.

    One does wonder why the government settled out of court if it was so sure of its position on all of this? As Doug Cooper commented in the Edmonton Journal comment section on the related article:

    “I have sat on government boards, and there is no way that Ab Ed could enter into an agreement with Trinity/Wisdom if there was any proven illegal activities. The minister has a fudiciary responsibility to safeguard and ensure proper use of funds. Otherwise he is legally liable. Anyone with board governance experience knows that. If there was legal wrongdoing on Trinity/Wisdoms part, and the minister then agreed to re-accredit them and go forward to work with them without persuing legal action, he would be irresponsible and open to charges himself. The mere fact they agreed shows Trinity did nothing wrong other than have loose governance. In addition the judge would also be open to if he did not shut down any wrongdoing or any potential future concerns for taxpayer funds. Instead he chided the government for a smear campaign. This was a legal decision and agreement based on rule of law and order. Any talk of corruption or misuse of taxpayer dollars is just lies, misinformation and fearmongering pure and simple.”

    Reply
  7. Roger Abraham

    January 6th, 2017

    From 1 month ago: “Wildrose defence of Christian home schooling group unravels on news of operators’ big salaries”

    “its principal was paid $322,813 over three years. One news report says it currently has 13 students.
    ($107,606 per year for 13 students)

    And the nail on which their sweater snagged? It was the revelation this week that the two extended families running the Trinity Christian School Association and the Wisdom Home Schooling Society, which directly and indirectly receive per-student public funding from the province, took personal pay of almost $3 million over three years.

    kennethnosterKen Noster, the board chair and administrator of Wisdom, was paid nearly $300,000 a year, more than the superintendents of the vast majority of Alberta school districts. His pay totalled $863,882 over three years, court documents showed. His wife Marlane Noster and several of their children brought in roughly another $1 million in salaries over the same period.

    Meanwhile, Richard Schienbein, principal of Trinity Christian School in Cold Lake, which one news report said currently has 13 students, was paid $322,813 over the three years, with several members of his family being compensated to the tune of $1.06 million over the same period, some for unspecified duties.”

    Reply
  8. David

    January 6th, 2017

    I think this is good news on both fronts – the school can continue to operate, but without the financial shenanigans of the people who previously ran it. They seemed to benefit a little to much from the government money and it doesn’t seem like some of it made it to where it should – the students.

    Mr. McIver should have known better. He can not ignore his own potential conflict of interests with his spouse’s business in order to score political points. Did the PC’s learn nothing from Tobacco-gate?

    Reply
    • Lars

      January 6th, 2017

      Forgetting nothing and learning nothing appear to be defining PC traits.

      Reply
  9. Val

    January 6th, 2017

    i guess that’s all is Trump’s fault 🙂

    Reply
    • Athabascan

      January 6th, 2017

      Nope! It’s your fault- own it.

      All RW supporters contributed to this.

      Reply
      • Val

        January 7th, 2017

        sorry if disappoint you but i’m definitely not a wildroser :p
        at moment just seating on the fence and waiting when Peter Lougheed’s reincarnation will appear on horizon. absolutely doesn’t metter political background or beliefs.

        Reply
        • Murphy

          January 8th, 2017

          If that statement is translated directly into your first language, is it coherent?

          Reply
  10. Sassy

    January 6th, 2017

    “RCMP, meanwhile, said an investigation continues into the financial operations of Trinity and its contractor, Wisdom Home Schooling.” This is a quote from yesterday’s Edmonton Journal news story. Details in the audit report point to evidence of fraud, not just unethical behaviour. Let’s allow time for the RCMP do their job. In the meantime, Trinity/Wisdom is on a very short leash.

    Did anyone notice the judge’s remarks seemed a bit off? He called them (government?) heathens and compared the dispute to a matrimonial feud. Did Trinity (in Derwent) take the government to court in far away Grande Prairie because they knew this oddball judge would be presiding?

    I’m not sure why the government chose to negotiate with Trinity and come up with this agreement before Trinity’s hearing began. Of course the noisy opponents to everything the NDP does see it as the government fearing a court loss. I agree with those that believe this deal shows the NDP’s mature and collaborative preferences for solving problems as well as their stated desire to alleviate uncertainty for the homeschooling families involved. The RCMP can now follow through with investigations of any improper actions performed by the two families, while Alberta Education can concentrate on its mandate. Any other private school boards receiving public money will think twice about inappropriate activities. The lights have been turned ON!

    Reply
    • Val

      January 7th, 2017

      interesting, if there are RCMP investigation, why does NDP jumped in, before all matters was consolidated into one bulletproof case and only then take action?
      it seems like too many halfbaked decisions and actions, which eventually will be very costly for them.

      Reply
      • Sassy

        January 7th, 2017

        Simple – time. It requires special expertise to investigate and prosecute white collar crime. In the Edmonton Journal news story: “RCMP, meanwhile, SAID (my emphasis) an investigation continues…..”, so the reporter must have contacted the RCMP.

        Reply
        • Val

          January 8th, 2017

          well, my point was to accent a sort of immature, teenager-esque impatient behavior of NDP and not only in this instance. it looks like they in hurry to implement own agenda as much and as quickly, as they can, without thoughtfulness about following consequences for province, people and for them and their own future.

          as for schools itself, i guess best step would be to regulate redistribution of allocated funds, when provincial money should cover students only, but since the school are PRIVATE, administration/teachers must be covered by private funding.
          perhaps such way could be one, hard to argue with and eventually may demonstrate effectiveness and necessity of such enterprise.

          Reply
    • jerrymacgp

      January 7th, 2017

      I think the choice of court venue was simply about finding a Queen’s Bench court that had an opening on the docket.

      My only real issue with this settlement, is that the financial administrator will be paid for out of the public treasury instead of the Trinity board’s funds. Trinity were the ones with the questionable financial management practices; they should be the ones to pay for the additional oversight necessitated by their own actions.

      Reply
      • Sassy

        January 7th, 2017

        Good point about who has to pay for the financial administrator; it’s certainly not fair. I think it’s time private corporations receiving public subsidies publish detailed financial statements online for all to see.

        Reply
    • Sassy

      January 7th, 2017

      Some interesting information:

      Alberta has 42 public, 17 separate, 4 Francophone, 153 private, and 13 charter school authorities/boards.
      Alberta has 18 private school authorities who oversee home schooling families; 13 are Christian-based.
      Alberta has over 250 private schools.
      Ninety-four private schools are accredited and the majority of those receive public funding.
      Private schools have been allocated $248 million in public subsidies in 2016/17.
      Only four other provinces provide public subsidies to private schools (BC, SK., MB, QC), all at 50 per cent of public school funding; Alberta provides a 70 per cent subsidy.
      Audited annual financial statements for each public, separate, Francophone and charter school authority is published and available for public viewing on the Alberta Education website.

      Reply
  11. J.E. Molnar

    January 7th, 2017

    Reports have indicated that an RCMP and Canada Revenue Agency investigation was launched in October. I think this matter is far from concluded. The forensic audit undertaken appears to be problematic for Trinity and Wisdom and it will likely take both the RCMP and CRA time to sift through the documentation going back to 1997. That’s when the former PC government raised concerns over Trinity’s contracting structure with Wisdom and apparently ignored it all these years.

    The resolve reached on Jan. 5 allows both parties to save face and as for the government, it can bide its time while both law enforcement agencies conclude their investigation.

    Reply
  12. Sassy

    January 7th, 2017

    Some of the media, along with Trinity/Wisdom defenders, are squawking over the funeral expense but seem to be ignoring the suspicious land and building deals worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Maybe it’s time for them to reread the Trinity Christian School Association Audit Review sections 5.2 Leases and 5.3 Capital Transactions (pages 17-22 of 37): https://education.alberta.ca/media/3273210/trinity-christian-school-association-review.pdf. There’s plenty for the RCMP to work with in those two sections alone.

    Reply

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