Vancouver parents feeling school-fundraising fatigue

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After countless fundraisers for their daughter’s old school, Ivy Leung and her husband are burned-out.

They’ve been active in raising money since their child was in Grade 1, and she’s now in Grade 7. Leung is simply exhausted. This year, she and her spouse are taking a breather.

“We’re just kind of taking a break, going, ‘Wow. This is a little bit too much,’ ” Leung told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.

Leung is also a vice chair of the District Parent Advisory Council in the Vancouver school system. Last December, the city’s DPAC hosted a meeting with its counterparts from Abbotsford, Burnaby, Chilliwack, Coquitlam, Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows, New Westminster, North Vancouver, and Surrey to discuss issues of common concern.

It likely wasn’t a big surprise that one of the three key concerns identified at that meeting was that several Parent Advisory Councils (PACs) are experiencing burnout from fundraising.

School fundraisers have changed over the years, in both nature and scale. The occasional bake sale or raffle to raise money for the sports team’s or band’s trip no longer cuts it. Through wish lists created by school staff, parents are increasingly being called upon by schools to raise large sums of money for everything from a new playground to gadgets like iPads, laptops, and smart boards.

When Leung’s daughter was in Grade 1, her school needed two new playgrounds costing a total of $130,000. Because she works flexible hours as a real-estate consultant, Leung has the time to do lots of volunteer work. But she also knows that other parents can’t because they work two or even three jobs in order to support their families.

Neighbourhoods also differ from each other, and some have a greater ability to raise funds than others. According to Leung, this has created inequality between schools.

Vancouver school trustee Mike Lombardi blames this situation on a lack of adequate funding by the provincial government for the public school system.

“With us having to have cut $80 million in the last 10 years from the budget, you know, schools are now scrambling to pay for things,” Lombardi told the Straight by phone. “Because of underfunding, schools became dependent on fundraising.”

Lombardi heads a subcommittee created by the Vancouver school board that’s tasked with looking into fundraising by parents. The panel held its first meeting last December. “We’re going to conduct a survey to find out how much fundraising is going on and what it’s being used for,” he said. “Our goal, of course, is to promote equity and inclusiveness and fairness in our schools.”

Although provincial funding for K–12 education has been increasing every year, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation notes in a report that these increments have “not been large enough to preserve the same levels of service our students had a decade ago”.

In a briefing paper submitted last October to the legislative assembly’s committee on finance and government services, the BCTF points out that between school years 2005-06 and 2009-10, spending on operations by public elementary and secondary schools increased by 19.1 percent across Canada compared with 11.8 percent in B.C. The union estimates that if the B.C. government had matched the Canadian average during that period, school districts would have received an additional $377 million.

Chilliwack’s DPAC chair, Gord Byers, has four kids in the school system. With his family getting requests every week or two for money, “it’s getting a little bit crazy.”

“We’re [parents are] going to end up paying for everything,” Byers told the Straight in a phone interview.

Colin Redfern is the chair of Vancouver’s DPAC. According to the father of two, many parents are tired of the endless fundraising they have to do.

“What it is, in the end, is it’s a stopgap measure that is not sustainable,” he told the Straight by phone.

Redfern suggested that school boards need to regulate what and how much schools can ask of parents; personally, he wants to see an end to all those wish lists. “The School Act created PACs not to be fundraisers but to be parent advisory committees and to supplement education, not as a different source of income,” he said.

The Vancouver school board’s Lombardi expects his committee to come up with a report by the end of this school year.

New Burnaby school-board chair Baljinder Narang acknowledged that fundraising by parents creates inequality between schools. However, the trustee also pointed out that her board isn’t inclined to put in rules. “I don’t think we could control what they want to do because one school might be happy doing it, the other school might not be happy doing it,” Narang told the Straight by phone. “We don’t see [it] as our role to kind of manage how PACs conduct their business.”

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