Insufficient funds for all students
The best way to end the Ontario school system’s reliance on fundraising is to pour more money into public education, parents, teachers and critics say.
Insufficient funds for all students.
Laptops, like these used by Humphrey Public School students during their digital storytelling program, are not considered essential items for schools by the Ministry of Education.
North Star file photo
“We are getting increasingly (to be) a two-tiered education system,” says NDP education critic Peter Tabuns. “That speaks to the need for adequate funding of the education system so parents don’t feel compelled to raise money.” Fundraising Fever, a Metroland Special Report, shows that concerns about overuse of fundraising — and the disparities it creates — are growing province-wide. Potential solutions also include a proposal by the advocacy group People for Education, which wants a provincial Equity in Education grant created to reduce inequities triggered by fundraising. School boards are pushing for an evaluation of provincial education funding to determine whether the current model is fair to all students. “The pressure to fundraise will only grow as boards try to meet the austerity measures of provincial governments,” said Catherine Fife, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association. “We can’t go to our parent councils or school councils and keep asking for money.” There’s no question money is tight. The McGuinty government is starting consultations this fall to cut $10 million from school board administration budgets by 2013-14.
Some groups, including Social Planning Toronto, believe fundraising should be banned outright, except for raising dollars for external charities.
“I’d rather not have it,” says Chris Ellis, who sits on four school councils in Ottawa. “I’d like for schools to not be able to raise funds for their own use so then parents in those affluent areas might become involved and speak up for greater funding for the education system.”
The Coalition Against Public School Inequality suggests a cap on school fundraising.
A percentage of each school’s profits above and beyond the limit would go into an equalization fund to help disadvantaged schools. But the Ontario Federation of Home and School Associations says a limit would be too restrictive.
“We actually don’t want somebody to say you have to stop here. It’s up to the parents to decide how much they want to do or whether they’ve had enough,” said Lee Gowers, president of the group.
Critics say the province should outline exactly what materials, activities and programs should be available — at no cost to parents — in all Ontario schools. Currently, it’s OK to raise funds for library books, gym equipment and musical instruments.
“You need to start with the policy and the vision and laying out concretely what should be there in schools,” says Kidder. “Then you start talking about how you fund it to ensure it’s fair and equitable.”
There is also interest in a board-wide mentorship program where successful fundraising schools partner with those that need a hand, helping to reduce the gap in funds raised. Parents across Ontario are feeling unprecedented pressure to open their wallets for school fundraising as families shell out money for everything from crayons and Kleenex to computers and playground equipment. “Today there’s a bigger burden than ever before,” said Progressive Conservative education critic Lisa MacLeod. “Parents are paying over half a billion bucks out of their own pockets each year for essential learning tools.”
Bake sales, car washes and pizza lunches generate tens of millions of dollars in fundraising that is supposed to enrich — not replace — public funding. And “the amount of extra monies that are being raised for school purposes is steadily increasing,” the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association says. “The trend is undeniable.” At Near North District Schools in the Parry Sound area, fundraising has paid for sod on playgrounds, sports equipment, playground toys, iPads, musical instruments, student agendas, gymnasium equipment and bus expenses for special events.
"I like to think that our funds help to make the school experience a fun experience," said Nobel Public School Advisory chair Corine Green. "We are able to provide the things that enhance the basic learning experience. Things that install some school spirit and pride into the school; not only for students, but for teachers as well. Many teachers contribute a lot of their own money to support the learning in their classroom. When school councils support teachers, teachers respond with great experiences for the kids."
Parents do “have a role to play in actually augmenting the school budget,” said Kidder. But she believes the education system is taking advantage of parents’ willingness and ability to be involved, assuming they will always be there to put in that extra time and money.
For William Beatty parent council chair Melissa McKeown, those extra things, include an additional fan for her asthmatic son and fellow classmates inside the school. "There's only one fan in most of the classrooms - and it gets hot in those rooms," said McKeown. "He was having trouble breathing, so I talked to the principal, to see if the council could use its leftover money and buy fans for all the classrooms and a second fan for my son's classroom."
Many parents say they are feeling the pinch with schools continually asking for more money. It can seem endless, says Greg Weiler, a father of two at the primary level and local president for the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) in Waterloo.
“I can’t think of a week where there isn’t some fundraising initiative going on. They are constant and frequent,” Weiler says. “It puts an unrealistic expectation on parents and family and the community.”
However, not everyone agrees that the problem is a funding shortfall. Joe Allin, chair of the Durham District School Board, believes current government funding is sufficient and that fundraising is a long-standing practice in schools that will take place no matter what.
“I’m not convinced it’s associated with need,” Allin says. “That isn’t to say there aren’t needs. I’d say this activity would go on regardless of the level of funding that comes into the schools.”
Fundraising is a way for parents to be active and feel like they’re contributing to their child’s school, says Kidder, of People for Education. “I think it’s a really nice, understandable way to be involved in our kids’ school.”
The types of fundraisers being held, the amounts raised and the items bought differ across the province and the Near North District School Board. For the last two years, William Beatty Public School has replaced a group of small fundraisers with a single, event, the Halloween Howl, that raises just $4,000 for its 463 students. While Humphrey Public School's MayFest, an annual event for more than 10 years, has raised about $10,000 in 2011 to support the school's 214 students.
There’s no cut-and-dried answer to the pitfalls of fundraising.
Sheila Perry spent 30 years working in the education sector in a variety of roles, including principal, teacher, educator, consultant and administrator. With a broad perspective on fundraising from within the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, she says the issue of private dollars funding public education remains a dilemma.
“That’s the key, it’s a public system,” says Perry, who is now retired. “The key is to offer things across the board, an equal opportunity as much as you can. The dilemma becomes when you just can’t or the price is too prohibitive. That’s where you get into the fundraising.”
Muddying the issue further is determining the must-have items. For example, the Ministry of Education doesn’t consider technology an essential item for schools. In fact, it slashed the budget for that line item by $25 million for the 2011-12 school year. "The fundraising guidelines make it clear that fundraising should not be used to pay for the meat and bones of education, nor for any capital costs," said Green whose Nobel school council helped raise funds for iPads for the school. "There is no fundraising committee. There are barely enough people to show up to meetings to meet quorum, and it seems to me this is true of most schools...with continued budget cuts and money issues, I cannot see anything changing soon. I do think that if the Ministry of Education wants to promote more parental involvement in the education system, they might need to consider different ways of achieving this and not leave it up to a bunch of volunteer parents." In turn, the Ministry’s guidelines deem it acceptable for schools to acquire technology with fundraised dollars. But some in the education sector believe technology is indeed a necessity.
“We can’t go to our parent councils or school councils and keep asking for money for what could arguably be described as a 21st-century learning tool in public education,” says Catherine Fife, president of Ontario Public School Boards’ Association. “So let’s find creative ways to address that funding shortfall and not go to fundraising.”