NorQuest College president gets one-month sabbatical each year

A month's paid sabbatical for every 12 months of work, on top of a $412,000 a year salary. It is a compensation package most executives in the private sector could only dream of.

Internal documents also show Jodi Abbott has language training in Mexico paid for

NorQuest College president Jodi Abbott gets a month's paid sabbatical for every 12 months worked. (Norquest College)

A month's paid sabbatical for every 12 months of work, on top of a $412,000 a year salary.

It is a compensation package most executives in the private sector could only dream of.

But documents obtained by CBC News through Freedom of Information show that is the compensation deal NorQuest College cut with its president Jodi Abbott. And during that sabbatical, NorQuest also pays, with approval by the board chair, for professional development Abbott undertakes.

The documents show Abbott is keen to learn Spanish, and NorQuest has on several occasions paid all the expenses, including flight, homestay fees, ground transportation, and tuition. That allowed her to take language training in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a popular holiday destination about two hours south of Mexico City.

The college also paid for private Spanish lessons for Abbott in Edmonton, from two separate teachers who charged $60 and $65 an hour respectively for their time. Documents show one of the teachers provided the lessons at her NorQuest College office, and the college provided the teacher with a half-day of free parking.

Abbott is the third highest paid college leader in Alberta. She was paid a total compensation package of $490,000 last year, according to information made public earlier this year under new provincial compensation disclosure rules.

Board chair defends sabbatical, salary

NorQuest did not respond to an interview request from CBC News. But in an emailed statement, Al Skoreyko, chair of the college's board of governors, defended Abbott's perks and salary.

"Like any post-secondary institution, NorQuest competes to attract and retain the best possible management to deliver the workforce-ready graduates required by Alberta's labour market," Skoreyko stated. "Provisions in contracts for sabbatical/professional development are common in learning organizations in the post-secondary sector, especially at this level."

Skoreyko was asked how Abbott's Spanish lessons would serve NorQuest.

​"Learning a second language like Spanish aligns well in understanding the people the college serves," he said.

He said about 60 per cent of the college's students were born outside Canada and more than 70 languages are spoken on campus.

Alex Usher is a Toronto-based consultant and expert in post-secondary governance who has done consulting for many universities and colleges in Canada and worldwide. He said he has never seen a sabbatical deal similar to the one provided to Abbott by NorQuest.

"The use of the word 'sabbatical' is a little bit odd," he said. "Usually what they will talk about is administrative leave and it tends to be taken after they complete their term of office."

Alex Usher, an expert in university and college governance, said he has never seen a sabbatical deal like the one provided by NorQuest College to Jodi Abbott, its president. (Supplied)

Usher also cast doubt on Skoreyko's claim that Abbott's high salary is necessary to retain her.

NorQuest has about 5,000 full-time equivalent students. Humber College in Toronto has about 25,000.

"The president of that institution makes a total salary of $432,000," Usher said, adding that the Humber president is the highest paid in Ontario.

"I think you have lots of examples of college presidents all over the country managing similar sized institutions for considerably less," Usher said.

Salary and sabbatical 'excessive'

Wildrose MLA Drew Barnes said Abbott's salary and sabbatical deal are "excessive" when compared with similar positions in both the private and public sectors.

"Taxpayers and Albertans know how important post secondary (education) is, but we need value for our hard-earned taxes and this excessive spending, these perks and payments beyond what is the norm for similar professionals, shows a lack of respect for hard-earned taxpayers' dollars," he said.

Wildrose MLA Drew Barnes said the compensation package for NorQuest College president Jodi Abbott is "excessive." (Wildrose Party)

Skoreyko, in his statement to CBC News, said that under Abbott's "strong guidance, NorQuest's management team provides solid leadership to strengthen the services offered to our students."

"The college's annual reports contain many examples illustrating how the college is meeting and exceeding its goals and objectives," Skoreyko said.

But during Abbott's tenure, NorQuest was the target of a massive privacy breach and two alleged frauds, which in total, cost the college nearly $2 million over five years.

Neither the privacy breach nor the alleged frauds were publicly disclosed by NorQuest. They were revealed by CBC News in September.

NorQuest also never reported the privacy breach to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, which is now conducting an investigation following a complaint from an employee.

On Tuesday, Abbott and other senior executives from NorQuest will appear before the legislature's public accounts committee, where they have been summoned to answer questions about the privacy breach and alleged frauds.

Barnes, a successful businessman in private life, is a member of that committee.

"I look forward to trying to uncover where we can get some more value for the taxpayer (from NorQuest College)," Barnes said.


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