School budget cuts mean fundraising parents pick up slack

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      This holiday season, Gwen Giesbrecht and her son will be schlepping around town, selling boxes of chocolates to support his East Vancouver school, Laura Secord Elementary. It’s just one of the fundraisers the school’s parent advisory committee conducts each year. Others include a fall book sale and pizza sales at school family nights.

      Giesbrecht, who is the chair of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council, is an enthusiastic participant, but she knows the fundraising is a stop-gap. PACs, she said, are in the stressful position of keeping new books flowing into school libraries, uniforms on the sports teams, playground equipment usable, and field trips affordable in an era of restricted funding for education.

      “It’s an imperfect system,” she told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview, noting that she knows it creates two tiers of schools depending on how flush the parents are. “One idea that has come up from time to time is the notion that PAC-generated funds would be put into a common kitty and dispersed equitably [across the district]. But that meets with resistance because there’s the fear that parents would stop contributing completely if they feel their money was going to subsidize another school.”

      The Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association’s September newsletter traces, in detail, the impact of B.C.’s cuts to education since 2001. Within two months of authorizing parents to volunteer in schools (August 2001), it reports, funding cuts resulted in 113 school closures, 2,500 fewer teaching positions, and the introduction of a four-day week in some areas. These were decisions that school boards were forced to make when their budgets shrunk.

      Giesbrecht says that in 2008, parents are pressured to make up for further cuts through increased fundraising—such as when the B.C. government offered to match PAC funds for new playground equipment.

      So how successful are the committees at making up for the cuts? B.C.’s PACs are not required to report how much they raise or what the money funds, Giesbrecht said. So no one knows how heavily the provincial government or school boards rely on parent volunteers. A study by Ontario’s People for Education, however, shows that the province’s PACs raised $600 million in 2008, up from about $550 million in 2007. So last year, Trinity-Spadina MPP Rosario Marchese introduced legislation that would limit PAC fundraising to fun projects like end-of-year parties rather than operating or capital money.

      “I think the situation is just nuts,” Marchese told the Straight. “You’re [PACs are] simply saying to governments, ”˜You can stop funding schools because parents will fill in the gaps and teachers will also buy supplies.’ ”

      Marchese’s answer is to sever schools’ dependence on PACs so the province will be forced through parental pressure to boost school funding. But to Giesbrecht, that’s too harsh.

      “I think we’d have a lot of angry parents,” she said. “Ideologically, yes, I’d say schools shouldn’t have to raise funds. But to just cut it off like that with no assurances that funds are coming from different sources, that would create a lot of divisiveness among the parents.”

      To Marchese, Giesbrecht’s lack of confidence in lobbying amounts to “simply abandoning our responsibility as citizens to say to government, ”˜You must fund us adequately.’ ”

      It’s not just PACs that are funding schools. Each morning at Norquay Elementary, near 29th Avenue and Nanaimo Street, about 60 students gather for a hot-breakfast program paid for by Rotary Vancouver and the Vancouver Shaughnessy Lions Club. Principal Bill Barrie told the Straight the meal is important to learning in his school. So should breakfast programs be the responsibility of the province?

      “Ideally, children should be having breakfast with their families,” Barrie said, “and, traditionally, that’s a responsibility of parents. But”¦if families are in need, it would be nice to have assistance from the province.”

      NDP education critic Norm Macdonald agrees that the responsibility shouldered by PACs has created a two-tier education system in B.C.

      “If parents are raising money, you should be very sure that every child, no matter where they are in the province, should be able to reach their full potential,” he told the Straight. “That’s the correct thing to do, from a moral point of view, and the wisest thing you can do for our future.”

      The incredible shrinking school resources

      > From 2001–02 to 2007–08, the number of B.C. special-education teachers declined by 15 percent.

      > From 2003–04 to 2007–08, the number of students with disabilities increased: serious mental illness (up 1.7 percent), learning disabilities (up 9.4 percent), physical disabilities (up 11.6 percent), and autism spectrum disorder (up 108 percent).

      > From 2001–02 to 2007–08, the number of library specialist teachers in B.C. schools declined by 21 percent.

      > B.C. has the highest student-educator ratio in Canada, at 17 to 1 in 2006–07. That year, the national average was 14.8 to 1.

      > In 2000–01, B.C. spent 3.6 percent of its gross domestic product on public education. By 2005–06, that number had declined to 3.2 percent.

      > B.C. has the highest level of child poverty in Canada, with 20.9 percent of B.C. children living in poverty in 2005, according to youth-advocacy organization First Call.

      Source: A B.C. Teachers’ Federation September 2008 brief to the B.C. legislature’s select standing committee on finance and government services