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Sask. Montessori school shuts down following allegations teachers weren't paid

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A Montessori school in Saskatoon has permanently closed following multiple claims from teachers that they're missing wages.

The Ministry of Labour Relations says it’s received 14 claims against Wild Spirit Education Ltd. about unpaid work, and the Employment Standards division is investigating.

Wild Spirit is a registered independent school that does not receive any money from the government, according to the Ministry of Education.

The school advertises educational, nature-based programming for kids 18 months to Grade 12.

Wild Spirit founder Christa Nelson's bio on the school's website. (Source: Wild Spirit Education website)

Aeina Khan was hired at the private school in February, working with toddlers. At first, things were good.

"The school looked amazing. It was everything I dreamed of," Khan says.

But the dream didn't last long.

"My first cheque was supposed to come on the first of every month and I didn't get anything," Khan tells CTV News.

Khan says she was eventually paid, but is still missing a few hundred dollars from her last paycheque.

After three months, Khan says the school’s owner Christa Nelson fired her on a day she called in sick.

"She sent me an email saying, ‘We can’t rely on you because of your illness,’" Khan says.

"She actually terminated me the day of, while I wasn't at work, which really hurt because it is my classroom. I didn't get to say bye to the kids or families."

Aeina Khan was hired at the private school in February. When the first pay day came, she says she got nothing. (Laura Woodward / CTV News)

CTV News spoke to a mother who says she was shocked to learn her child's $1,300 monthly tuition wasn't going to staff. She pulled her child out of the school, as a result.

"I was devastated. I spent a lot of time crying because the people who are looking after my child during the day, they were very lovely. They were kind. They were always smiling. And when you find out that they're not being paid, your heart breaks," the mother said.

Some parents have set up a GoFundMe page to pay their kids' teachers.

The page claims Wild Spirit owes over $40,000 to more than 10 teachers.

"I was mentally so depressed. You're working from 9:30 until 4:30, and then you're not paid," a former Grade 10 teacher told CTV News.

She says she's missing $7,500.

The former Wild Spirit teacher, who requested anonymity, says her paycheques were made via e-transfers from Nelson, and were breadcrumbed in fragmented amounts throughout the month.

"She would send me $500 here and then $1,000 later," the teacher explains.

She says most of her colleagues at Wild Spirit were newcomers to Canada, eager to get work experience. Many had their own children enrolled in the school.

"Her main target is the newcomers.”

A GoFundMe campaign to raise money for unpaid teachers claims Wild Spirit Education owes over $40,000 in back pay. (Source: GoFundMe)

CTV News obtained a memo Nelson sent to parents.

"Due to recent events and malicious harassment, I have been forced to make the hard decision to close effective immediately for the safety of all of our students," the memo reads.

Employment Lawyer Steve Seiferling says former staff could take the matter to court. Employees could band together and launch a class action lawsuit, but the easiest route to retrieve unpaid wages is through Employment Standards.

"They don't need a lawyer. Employment Standards will process everything for them, they will send the complaint to the employer and then the employer is going to have to respond to it: either reject it, accept it, contest it or just pay the money out," Seiferling says.

He warns the issue doesn't solely fall on the owner.

"For anybody who is on the board of this organization, they could personally be on the hook for the unpaid wages and the minimum severance amounts," Seiferling says.

Nelson declined CTV's request for an interview.

"I am working closely with the ministry to ensure that all claims filed are accurate and taken care of. I will be available for comments in regards to allegations once the files are closed," Nelson told CTV News in an email on Wednesday morning.

While Khan is hopeful she and other teachers will get paid through the employment standards investigation, she's enjoying her new job as a nanny.

"And I get paid right after each of my shifts, so it's awesome," Khan said. 

Wild Spirit Education's building on Taylor Street East in Saskatoon. (Laura Woodward / CTV News)

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