Vancouver independent school struggling to pay teachers as lawsuits and confusion mount
B.C. Ministry of Education says it is monitoring situation as Westside School appeals to parents
The B.C. Ministry of Education says it is monitoring a situation involving a downtown Vancouver independent school facing serious financial problems as it struggles to pay staff and responds to a series of lawsuits demanding millions of dollars.
In a letter obtained by the CBC, the newly appointed chief executive officer of the Westside School told parents that without a "substantial injection" of cash, the independent school wouldn't be able to continue paying teachers until the end of the school year.
Graham Baldwin wrote to parents after weeks of uncertainty that have seen the school's former CEO fired and allegations of financial impropriety levelled against Chris Jin, a former director of the Westside Preparatory Society, the not-for-profit society which governs the school.
The society has been named in lawsuits accusing Jin of failing to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans and promising Chinese investors he would get them permanent resident status in exchange for investment in the school.
Meanwhile, parents have been left to ponder the school's future as staff continue to teach virtual lessons despite the restrictions imposed by COVID-19.
"The current financial situation is exceedingly difficult," Baldwin wrote to parents in a letter sent out last week.
"I know that to sustain itself our school will need the urgent help of our families. My first action, therefore, must be to seek that help. Hence this appeal to you."
Need for investment and expertise
According to its website, the Westside School has been in operation since 2004.
The school had an enrolment of 370 students in classes spanning kindergarten to Grade 12 as of last September.
Located close to B.C. Place, the school promises an environment that "re-imagines learning for a changing world, is a place of happy excellence and a leader in learning."
The Ministry of Education provided a grant to the school totalling $943,325 for the school year ending in June 2019, up from $720,522 the previous year.
The lawsuits allege a financial relationship between the Westside Preparatory Society and Eagle Q Partners, an education company founded by Jin.
The vice-president of Eagle Q, Donghui Li, is currently the only remaining director of the society.
In a letter sent to parents last week, Li blamed the school's financial troubles on insufficient recruitment, new rules in China which have made it difficult for investors to transfer funds, debts to the Canada Revenue Agency and significant overstaffing.
Baldwin's letter says the payroll and benefits for the school total $221,000 bi-weekly. He says teachers have already seen their pay "delayed on several occasions" in the past year.
He goes on to say the school is in need of financial help, expertise in financial matters, non-profit or charity law and assistance making contact with "people who may be willing to provide funds to help a worthwhile school."
Lawsuit claims investment for immigration
Neither letter makes any reference to the six lawsuits which have been filed against the Westside Preparatory Society and Chris Jin in recent months.
In responses to two of the claims, the society has denied any liability for the allegations, saying it had no knowledge of any loan agreements which might have been reached between the people who filed the claims and Jin or Eagle Q Partners.
According to the Eagle Q Partners website, Jin graduated from the University of Shanghai and immigrated to Toronto.
"Noticing a lack of knowledge and academic guidance in the immigrant community, Chris founded Eagle Q in order to help new immigrants successfully navigate the education system and maximize their potential," the website says.
"Thus began his interest in educational counselling and his commitment to helping students enrich themselves through scholastic and volunteer opportunities."
In a lawsuit filed last February, a pair of Chinese nationals claim Jin told them he was a registered immigration consultant and that he agreed to help them obtain a permanent resident visa in exchange for payments of $450,000 to Eagle Q, the Westside Preparatory Society and the school.
They claim they later learned that he failed to submit their applications to immigration authorities.
In another claim filed in March, two Richmond residents claim Jin told them that Eagle Q Partners had a controlling share interest in the school which paid a dividend of 10 per cent.
They are seeking a combined total of $8.25 million from Jin and Eagle Q Partners for what they claim were the purchase of shares and loans to Westside.
Neither Jin nor Eagle Q Partners has responded to the lawsuits and none of the claims has been proven in court.
Call for 'guidance'
In a statement to the CBC, the Ministry of Education said "we sympathize with students, their families and members of the Westside School community who are facing uncertainty about school operations for the remainder of the school year."
The ministry said it has been in contact with the school and "will meet with parents and the school authority to discuss their concerns and next steps."
A group of parents with children at the school provided a statement calling on the ministry to provide guidance.
"Our teachers and staff have been working tirelessly," the statement said.
"They worked through their spring break to ensure that an online learning program was up and running. As it stands, we do not know if the school will be able to finish the school year and we are concerned for our close-knit community."
The school did not respond to a request for comment. Jin could not be reached.