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

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Heather Sweet

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.

To 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.

Instead 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

When 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.

Sweet's problem was that 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, Sweet's shot struck its target anyway.

In a report released Wednesday, Ethics Commissioner Marguerite Trussler ruled 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 McIver "was more interested in scoring political points than worried about his wife's business," 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 David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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