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Donations increasingly funding B.C. schools

By Michael Mui, 24 Hours Vancouver

Parents have to consider whether coughing up donations would enable schools to rely on goodwill more in the future, argues Farah Shroff.
Fotolia

Parents have to consider whether coughing up donations would enable schools to rely on goodwill more in the future, argues Farah Shroff. Fotolia

24 hours examines annual donations collected by six Lower Mainland school districts

A whopping $6.74 million in additional funding — that’s how much an analysis of six school district’s annual donations in the Lower Mainland tally up to.

And the money is paying for crucial items that tax dollars are not available for, such as additional computers, after-school programs, books and more.

The school districts examined include Vancouver, Surrey, Richmond, New Westminster, Burnaby and Coquitlam. All provided the total sums of donations collected in a year via freedom of information requests for the collection years of 2013/14, with the lone exception of New West, which established itself as a charity last year.

In some cities, like Vancouver, Surrey and Coquitlam, donations have increased drastically over the years — from initial amounts of thousands to now hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars per year, all collected from goodwill.

Surrey, which collected the largest amount that year, actually has a full-time fundraiser to solicit and hand out donated funding or services to school programs.

“The department started in 2001 ... the board and executive committee at that time decided there was an opportunity, I guess, or an avenue to look at fundraising across the district in a unified way,” said Liane Ricou, manager of business development with Surrey district.

In the first year, the district brought in $200,000. In 2013/14, cash and in-kind donations tallied $2.89 million.

“The large part of our donations support vulnerable children in the school district, either with out-of-school programming or before-school programming run through our community schools department ... we know there’s always a need for books in our schools, we would always ensure we were applying for that.”

Some of the cash would go into programs like paying for first aid training for students as part of career development programs, or to pay for special instructors — say martial arts — to come teach at the school, said Surrey’s Community-Schools Partnership manager Sukh Shergill.

Breakfast and lunch programs are big, too.

In Richmond, the largest single chunk of the $203,000 it received in 2013/14 went into a breakfast program created by a retired district principal two years ago — $38,000 went into that program that year.

Glenn Kishi, the former Richmond district principal, said he created the Feed-U-Cate program in attempt to bolster the monies parents were already collecting.

“Before that, schools used to fundraise and PACs donated the money and that’s how they got the money to buy food,” he said.

“The plan wasn’t to do this for a year or two. My plan was to continue on as long as I can and someone else can take over ... all the schools that have requested funds have gotten it. We haven’t said no to anybody.”

Other districts, meanwhile, have yet to create departments to efficiently collect and dole out donated funds.

Ellen Roberts, director of instruction with Vancouver district, said donations to secondary schools are often directed to scholarships, while elementary school donations are more likely to be spent on projects such as playground facilities, computers or other supplies.

In 2013/14, Vancouver collected $2.73 million from donations.

“PACs might set a goal and the parents at the school are encouraged to donate towards a particular program,” Roberts said.

“It’s often because there’s a big project at a school ... I’ve heard of sponsoring field trips — making trips possible for students.”

In Burnaby, donations are generally collected and received directly by schools themselves, said district spokeswoman Jodie Wilson.

The donations aren’t tracked at the district level, though over the past two years monies have gone into scholarships, community programs, assisting disadvantaged youth, school furniture, equipment like laser discs, and more.

Coquitlam’s donations have doubled over the course of three years — reaching $516,000 in 2014 compared to $268,000 in 2012.

District staff did not provide comment on how the donations were spent.

New Westminster, meanwhile, has a fledgling program created in 2014/15 when the district established itself as a charity. It has since only collected a comparably small amount of $34,000. District secretary-treasurer Kevin Lorenz said the monies went predominantly towards scholarships.

Farah Shroff, first vice-president of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, said the first red flag for many parents was when they were asked to fundraise for things like playgrounds.

“Because of the slow erosion of government money coming into the system parents are expected, and in many cases, leap to the opportunity to meet the gap,” said Shroff, also a University of B.C. professor who has a PhD in sociology in education.

“Some parents are enabling it. They’re working so hard just to pay a mortgage or rent that being able to sit down and really learn about the issues that are facing their children’s education isn’t something they have time for. So if the school says, ‘Can you cut a cheque?’ or ‘Can you please go to this fundraiser?’ they haven’t had a chance to think about it and they just go with it.”

What is clear is that some districts are increasingly relying on donations, and in some cases, have incorporated the receiving of donations into their annual operations.

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