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Wildrose defence of Christian home schooling group unravels on news of operators' big salaries

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Ken Noster

The Wildrose Opposition's impassioned defence of a private Christian school association that oversaw about a third of the province's home-schooled children and the entity it hired to oversee the work is unravelling like an old sweater caught on a nail -- exposing the hapless 'Rosies to a wintry Alberta breeze.

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.

Ken 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.

Market fundamentalist parties like the Wildrose Opposition and the Progressive Conservative rump in the Legislature love private schools, charter schools, home schools or any other dubious venture in pedagogy on the principle they can be used to undermine public education and weaken teachers' unions.

So in late October, when Alberta's NDP Government withdrew funding and accreditation from Trinity and Wisdom, run by members of the Noster and Schienbein families from the hamlet of Derwent, the two conservative opposition parties pretty much screamed socialism, communism and the end of civilization as we know it.

Education Minister David Eggen's move followed an audit that indicated the two related family enterprises had inappropriately diverted funds from government per-student grants and withheld school expense money from parents to whom it should have been passed on. The financial review also indicated 32 per cent of Trinity’s and Wisdom’s expenses went to office and administration, compared with 3.4 to 5.6 per cent at public school boards. 

Wisdom kept $988,000 over three years that should have been given to parents to help finance their children's education, the Globe and Mail reported on Oct. 25. The audit concluded that some of the money had been spent on gifts, babysitting, a funeral, travel and food.

But in a Nov. 2 fund-raising email headlined "sticking up for parents," Wildrose Leader Brian Jean huffed that, "since taking office, the NDP government has slowly chipped away at parental rights in our school system." Unless this is a reference to interference with the right of parents to teach their children it's OK to bully members of sexual minorities, there is very little evidence of any such thing since the election of the NDP in May 2015.

Nevertheless, Jean went on to say: "The latest example came last week when the Education Minister abruptly shut down the Trinity Christian School without any regard for the major disruption this caused in the lives of 3,500 students enrolled in the Wisdom home education program."

In his email, Jean also reaffirmed Wildrose's oft-repeated pledge to support "parental rights," no matter what parents choose to teach their children, and asked recipients to chip in $10, $20 or even $50 to the party's coffers.

Jason Kenney, meanwhile, the former Harper cabinet minister now campaigning to "unite the right" by excluding all moderates from the PC Party's once big tent, was floating a bizarre conspiracy theory that the NDP is trying to indoctrinate public school students in "collectivist ideas." He also complained that Trinity students' parents had been unfairly "blindsided” by the government's effort to safeguard the public’s money.

The day before Jean emailed out his fund-raiser, Trinity went to court in Grande Prairie and succeeded in getting a temporary injunction allowing it to continue to operate, although without receiving any more public money. This was hailed as a huge victory by the conservative online anger machine at the time. The matter is now scheduled to be back in court on Jan. 5, 2017.

But it was documents filed with the court in Grande Prairie that contained the explosive financial statistics -- among them, a breakdown of $2.8 million in salaries over the three years.

How the Wildrosers will try to spin these embarrassing circumstances to prove the private sector is always more efficient than the public sector remains to be seen, but, for the moment, party spokespeople are backpedalling hard to get away from the embarrassment.

The salaries are … "concerning," said Wildrose Finance critic and social media attack dog Derek Fildebrandt. "We still continue to have strong concerns about the sudden shutdown, the way it was done," he told the national broadcaster. "The way this left students out in the cold."

It is worth noting that no student was left out in the cold -- literally or figuratively -- by the government's action.

All in all, this was not a good week for the Wildrose Opposition, which also had to cope with undeniable evidence Premier Rachel Notley's "social license" approach to getting pipelines works far better than the traditional conservative tactic shouting at and bullying opponents.

The first positive results on this file in a decade were not good enough for Jean, though. Only proof that all opposition to all pipelines has been silenced is good enough, he told the Edmonton Journal. "If we have any protesters whatsoever it's obvious the social licence should be rejected because this is not something that should form part of the decision-making," he said.

Notwithstanding their constant squealing about the tyranny of "hysterical political correctness," respect for free expression does not appear to be found in the Alberta opposition’s strategy manual any more.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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