Corporate sponsorship in Vancouver schools has become a prominent issue in the city’s municipal election campaign, with the Vancouver school board's rejection this past spring of funding from Chevron Canada returning to public scrutiny.
Canadian charity MyClassNeeds helps to distribute funding from Chevron's “Fuel Your School” program to Canadian schools, and earlier this year established funding arrangements with five school districts in the Lower Mainland, including in Burnaby and Surrey.
The Vancouver school board (VSB), which is dominated by Vision Vancouver trustees, rejected such a funding partnership. Vision asserted in a recent election campaign press release that potential funding from Chevron for Vancouver schools “was contingent on Chevron being able to directly interfere with teachers and lesson plans”.
I recently conversed online with VSB chair Patti Bacchus, and asked her via email for evidence of her claim that Chevron required influence in the classroom in exchange for funding. Bacchus did not respond.
I also asked Chevron Canada representative Adrien Byrne if Chevron requires a presence in the classroom. While I did not receive a clear answer, Byrne did write: “How school districts decide to communicate the benefits of program, is entirely up to the individual district.”
However, Byrne did give clearer comments to the Coquitlam Now this past May. “We don’t get a whole lot out of this...other than we want to give back to the community as a social investment. We don’t go into the classrooms at all.”
According to the Burnaby NewsLeader, Burnaby's school board “received assurances from Chevron that there will be no recognition of the company required in schools”.
But as The Tyee discovered this past March, a video on the MyClassNeeds’ Vimeo account shows a Chevron logo in a Surrey classroom. Chevron representative Byrne told The Tyee that the video was “made at the invitation of the Surrey School Board”.
Should the presence of a corporate logo in a public Surrey classroom cause concern for Vancouver parents? If Byrne’s comments are genuine, Chevron does not require any presence in the classroom. However, the statement from Byrne that Chevron “[doesn’t] go into the classrooms at all" seems untrue, based upon the Surrey video.
It’s also worth noting that the temporary placement of donor logos in Vancouver schools does not contravene current VSB policy—policy that has remained unrevised throughout Vision’s six-year term in office. The relevant policy allows for corporate logos to temporarily appear on VSB property for “product or sponsor identification purposes”. What VSB policy does not allow is for students to be subject to advertising in schools.
In short: VSB policy on this matter is sloppy, leaving a significant grey area between “identification purposes” and “advertising”.
VSB policy also allows for a “gift or contribution of money, goods or services, given to a school or the school district”, and states that schools or the VSB may “provide appropriate donor recognition”. However, donations are only accepted if there is no “expectation of something of value in return”. This appears to be more poor policy wording: is recognition not “something of value in return”?
In practice, VSB already accepts corporate donations. Telus and CIBC Wood Gundy at Bentall fund breakfast programs and after-school programs that take place on VSB property. However, if the funders are not “advertising” in schools or seeking “something of value in return”, such donations may be considered acceptable.
As part of their re-election campaign, Vision Vancouver—particularly Bacchus and prominent party supporter Marcella Munro—have been posting numerous messages on social media about Vision protecting Vancouver schools from corporate influence. This appears to be the “wedge” issue that Vision has chosen to focus their school board re-election campaign upon.
But how accurate is Vision's claim about potential interference from Chevron in Vancouver’s classrooms?
Despite the Surrey video, I cannot find any evidence that Chevron requires the temporary placement of their logo in Canadian classrooms, much less that they expect to “interfere with teachers and lesson plans”. This appears to be Vision spin.
Interestingly, Bacchus told the Vancouver Courier this past May regarding this issue that “schools and teachers would not be prevented from receiving corporate donations if they made their own arrangements”. So why the demonization of corporate donations now? Is it just election posturing?
Unless Vision has some evidence that they have not shared with us, their claim of Chevron wanting to “directly interfere with teachers and lesson plans” appears to be an assumption made without justification.
And there is more to this matter than corporate presence in the classroom—what NPA mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe has called “ideological”.
Bacchus mentioned on social media that if the VSB were to accept money from an oil company, such an action would also conflict with the City of Vancouver's Greenest City 2020 Action Plan. The VSB committed to aligning itself with Greenest City in summer 2009.
This in itself is not problematic. The voters of Vancouver elected a Vision-COPE school board in 2008, which chose to align itself with Greenest City. Vision was subsequently given a resounding majority by Vancouver voters in the 2011 election—and climate mitigation efforts have been a prominent part of Vision's ethos since the party was formed.
However, actions from Vision seem to conflict with the premise that working with oil companies goes against Greenest City. The City of Vancouver—under a Vision administration—purchased $17.4 million of fuel for city vehicles from Chevron Canada just before the November 2011 election. If working with oil companies goes against Greenest City goals, why is the city purchasing oil products from Chevron?
Also rather intriguingly, Munro, who recently joined Bacchus in vociferous social media messaging against corporate influence in the classroom, was registered as a lobbyist for Chevron Canada (through her work at the Earnscliffe Strategy Group) several years ago. There's nothing wrong with such a person speaking out against corporate influence in the classroom; but if Vision's decision to reject Chevron funding for Vancouver schools was based primarily about adhering to the Greenest City policy (rather than about classroom interference), Munro’s boosterism against Chevron funding seems perplexing.
In summary, there doesn't appear to be any evidence that Chevron requires a presence in Canadian classrooms in exchange for funding through MyClassNeeds. Chevron could, in theory, informally suggest such a proposition to the VSB; but according to their representative’s comments, logo placement is not specifically required.
Nor is Vision (and at least one of its supporters) providing a coherent position regarding when it is appropriate to work with oil companies.
Perhaps most unsettling of all is what appears to be disingenuous spin from Vision during an election. If Vision doesn't want to accept funding for VSB schools from an oil company based upon principles (climate-change mitigation), then they should articulate and stand behind those principles in a transparent manner. Instead, they are pretending to protect schools from corporate influence by making what appear to be bogus assertions of classroom interference. I would be happy to be proven wrong on this matter.
If Vision has proof that Chevron intended to “directly interfere with teachers and lesson plans”, they should substantiate their claim by making such evidence public. Otherwise, they should stop pretending to be protecting our schools from corporate influence in regards to the Chevron matter, and should instead have the courage to reveal the actual principles that guide their decisions.
If Vision genuinely wants to protect Vancouver schools from corporate encroachment, they should be campaigning to ban all donor logo placements from classrooms. A good start would be to revise VSB policy, such as getting rid of the current ambiguous wording that allows for “product or sponsor identification purposes” from corporations in schools. Unfortunately, Vision’s school election platform merely promises to uphold existing VSB policy.
While promises from incumbent Vancouver school trustees to keep corporate influence out of our classrooms might sound nice, the current VSB policy speaks volumes: “there is a role for corporate involvement within the school district”. So, which is it?