Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Taking advantage of the opaque

Though precipitated by a comment here today, my temperature starts to percolate every time people discuss school-generated funds. It was a point I kept raising during the excellent series by London Free Press reporters Kelly Pedro (pre-leave) and Jennifer O'Brien. With last week's release of a two-page People for Education report, I am again smacking my head against the table at how frequently and often "school-generated funds" are misinterpreted.
School-generated funds is a creation of the current provincial government. When it decided to implement the public sector accounting board (pee-sab, as it's not-so-affectionately called), it told school boards they would have to begin accounting for all the money that flows through their hands, regardless of where it comes from. That created the requirement for school boards to report, as part of their annual audits, their "school-generated funds" as a one-line item. Over the years -- prior to it becoming the issue it did this year -- boards have differed on how they report these amounts. Some boards would provide you the copies of the school reports handed to the board, spelling out exactly what share of the funds at each school were collected and spent on specific purposes. So you could, with time, break down how much of the school board's total school-generated funds line was raised and spent on charitable causes, physical enhancements to the building and grounds, program enhancements or field trips.
Others, as many now do, simply report a gross number. That number is picked up, and then based on an incomplete survey of some school councils, is consolidated and reported by PFE and repeated by every media. It even earned the honour of a press release on the first day of school from opposition leader Tim Hudak.
So, what impressions were we left with?
That all school-generated funds are actually fundraising.
That all that money goes to support expansions at schools and equipment needed to teach the Ontario curriculum (most of it doesn't).
That parents are being forced to fork out all this cash when it isn't needed.
That every dollar of school-generated funds comes out of a parent's pocket.
School-generated funds includes every dollar, every penny that goes through the hands of a school. That means the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised for the Terry Fox runs each fall. The countless dollars raised to support third-world schools. The endless amounts that were so quickly raised for catastrophic events around the world such as the southeast Asian tsunami or the Haiti earthquake (I'm sure part of the answer why Pakistani flood relief fundraising is lower than past events is that schools weren't in session when the disaster occurred).
At some schools, it also includes field trips-- the traditional Grade 8 trip to Quebec City, Toronto, Ottawa or some camp some where. Trips to the ROM, to the Science Centre, even to the local pool for swimming lessons (although this last one can be covered by a ministry grant).
At high schools, yes, they include extra-curricular activities-- which to me, by their very nature and name, should not be funded exclusively through government grants. In the cases I've been aware of, the sport with the $50 activity fee sees the kids participate in a weekend tournament with booking, travel and accommodation fees. Or the team members get jerseys or other apparel with their names on it.
These are all things that are an important part of education, but we're not having the conversation as to who should be paying for them. PFE executive director Annie Kidder repeated many of the misconceptions of school-based fundraising in a CBC Radio Here and Now interview I heard on Friday, but she did say the report was written to have that conversation.
Shame on PFE for not actually helping parents understand what school-generated funds are actually about.
And shame on the media out there who didn't bother doing so either.


Anonymous said...

Very well written. Glad to see someone in the media actually understands what SGF encompasses.

Keep up the great work!

Education Reporter said...

Thanks Anon.


Doretta Wilson said...

yes Hugo, the fundraising line is not everything that gets raised by school councils either, which by the way, shouldn't be doing it at all. (too bad the report didn't look at the amount of paid outside the school tutoring accounts for boosts in EQAO scores!)

The discussion also blurred the line between school fundraising and school fees and between fundraising for essentials, like textbooks, vs. extracurriculars.

I doubt whether or not a ban on fundraising would ever be enforceable. Parents would find ways to do it if they wanted.

What could have not been accounted for are gifts and/or donations of real goods and services by individuals--boxes of kleenex or paper, or a Staples or Chapters gift card to a teacher. Hard to enforce a ban on that!

Too bad the People for Education report didn't mention WHY schools seem to need to fundraise for essentials. I'm sure that reasons range from poor board management to an inflexible funding formula, etc. There is always more to the story.

I would rather see more local control of school spending with proper accountability mechanisms in place, of course.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you ER that it is indeed shameful for the media to take the information offered by Kidder's People for Education groups misconceptions as anything close to accurate. Your post states very well why.

I disagree with the previous poster - Doretta that parents will always find a way to fundraise. Not if they're directed or encouraged to just STOP. Often school councils were steered into fundraising against their will but school admin. in many schools defined councils exactly that way to keep parents "busy" and out of their hair.

If Kidder really was the advocate for parents she touts we'd be hearing her helping parents avoid the fundraising trap and educating councils to write fundraising right out of their constitutions.

School councils have the power as a statutory body to do something about moving parents out from under the fundraising rock and into the light of learning about the delivery of education in this province and how councils could become a huge vehicle in the local decision making process for the future.

Doretta said...

"Not if they're directed or encouraged to just STOP."

I think you misunderstood what I meant Anon. It's about freedom.
Sure you can ban the school council from holding fundraising events, which I absolutely agree with you on, btw; but you can't stop individual parents from donating boxes of kleenex or giving thier kid's teachers a gift card that can be used to buy supplies. Frankly, I wouldn't want that to be banned as long as it was MY freedom of choice to do so and not from a note that goes home to require a parent to do so.

We are on the same page. School councils should be looking at student achievement not fundraising.

Anonymous said...

Whoa! Holy Annie-Kidder bashing Batman!
Kidder is not a journalist or a politician. Nor is she a government employee or a an educator.
She is the head of a lobby group doing just that, lobbying . . . that is trying to put forth the most presuasive argument that she can to attain her organization's goals.
I don't agree with everything PFE stands for, but how are her tactics any different or misleading than that of other education lobbyies?

Education Reporter said...

Anon 13 Sept. 12:20

I don't think it was bashing to point out how Kidder manipulated her own school-council survey and then used the information selectively and without providing the needed context. It's a fair comment.

You're absolutely right, her tactics/methods are no different than any other seen on this and other issues. When and where there's time and opportunity, I've consistently pointed their faults out in this space. It's an equal-opportunity love thing, so don't feel that I've targetted Kidder or PFE in any specific or determined way. Why, this post may be the first time I've been so blunt with what PFE has had to say.