Rich schools get richer thanks to private cash
Two public and two Catholic high schools in Greater Toronto are bringing in more than a million dollars a year through student fees, private revenue and fundraising, with dozens more each taking in at least half a million dollars.
By contrast, other similar-sized schools report a fraction of that – one just $283,000 – raising questions about equity in the public education system.
There is an equally great divide for the region’s elementary schools. In the Toronto public board alone, the top 20 money-generating schools, primarily in wealthy neighbourhoods, collected a total of $4.4 million compared to just $103,000 for the bottom 20 schools, most in needy areas.
The figures were obtained by the Star through Freedom of Information requests and provide a first-ever, school-by-school look at private money flowing into the public system in the region.
And it’s big money – $240 million in total across the GTA for 2008-2009, the most recent figures available at the time of the request. For sure, the money is not all profit; “school-generated funds” include student activity and athletic fees, cafeteria and vending machine profits, as well as money collected for field trips, book orders and even charity fundraisers.
The four high schools in the million-dollar club include Turner Fenton in Brampton ($1.4 million), Mayfield in Caledon ($1.3 million), St. Aloysius Gonzaga in Mississauga ($1 million), and Michael Power/St. Joseph in Toronto ($1.3 million). What pushed these schools to the top were exam fees as high as $1,200 per student for the prestigious International Baccalaureate program, student activity fees topping $100, and, in the case of Mayfield, a $100-per-student surcharge to cover its arts program.
The school-generated funds are a growing pot that, according to critics, is being used to help fill the gap between what the province provides to school boards and the real cost of educating kids.
For schools that can raise a lot of money, “it ends up becoming a private school in the public system,” said Annie Kidder of research and advocacy group People for Education. “It’s hard to resist as a parent, but it really undermines the overall ideal of public education,” which she says is to level the playing field. And it puts poor kids at a “double disadvantage,” because they may miss out on enrichment opportunities at school as well as at home.
There is no limit on how much schools and parent councils can raise and few restraints on where it can be spent. Because of lax rules on how the money is accounted for, boards don’t always know exactly where the money comes from or where it goes.
Seven of 10 public boards in Greater Toronto complied with the Star’s initial FOI request to release records showing school-generated funds for 2008-09.
Three boards fought to keep the figures under wraps, arguing that revealing the amounts could “negatively impact their schools financially.” The Star appealed and as a result, the York Catholic board released the figures and the York District School Board is in the process of doing so. Whether Durham District School Board will release the information is not known.
Administrators at York District had refused because they said making such records public would create a “have and have not mindset that will damage reputations and impede operations” of the board and its schools.
This year the Ministry of Education asked school boards to break down school-generated funds into five categories that include money collected for field trips and excursions, fundraising to build parts of schools, fundraising for external charities, and fees collected for student activities and resources.
“I think if you just look at the aggregate dollar amount, that is significant,” said Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky, when asked about school-generated funds. “There’s no question about it.”
But she wouldn’t comment on whether the province would ever consider asking rich schools to share with needier schools. “We don’t know how much is being raised and for what it’s being raised,” said Dombrowsky. “That’s important information for us to have before we consider anything beyond that.”
In Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood, Frankland Public School recently sent a letter home to parents – on board and school letterhead, signed by the principal and parent council co-chairs – asking for a direct donation of $25, with the promise of a tax receipt from the city’s public school board.
The goal was to raise $6,000 in the month of February to make up for a shortfall in magazine subscription sales, normally a money-maker for schools.
“Because we fundraise in one year and spend in the next, we need to make sure the money is there,” said Kate Hilton, who co-chairs the parent council. It raises almost $40,000 a year to pay for Scientists in School, visiting authors, field trips and indoor lunchtime sports programs on cold days.
The council decided on the direct donation approach because, unlike selling cookie dough or magazines, every dollar goes into the school’s budget as opposed to the businesses supplying the products.
The ministry provides money for the basics, said principal Terry Walsh. “We can teach the curriculum. But there is always a parent body that wants to further enrich the education their child could have.”
It is those extras that have been fuelling the rise in school-generated funds across the province, which totalled $592 million in 2008-09.
“I think trips are part of the basics to integrate learning and reinforce learning,” said Jennifer Sutherland, who chairs the parent council at Garden Ave. Public School near Roncesvalles Ave., a school that has clear guidelines in place for its fundraising activities. “But today there isn’t the funding available for teachers and principals to do that.”
Non-profit advocacy group People for Education has been the only organization tracking trends in school-generated funds since the province began asking boards to collect the data in 2005.
“We always used to think fundraising for extras was fine,” said Kidder, its executive director. “But what’s an extra? I think we even used to think fundraising for playgrounds was okay, but then should kids in low-income neighbourhoods (who can’t raise the money) have crappy playgrounds?
The hardest question is where you draw the line.”
One of the highest amounts generated by a high school in the region was $1.4 million by Turner Fenton Secondary School in Brampton.
Close to a million of it was paid by the 800 students in the school’s prestigious IB program, who pay $1,200 each to take the exams. The IB program gives students internationally recognized credentials and puts them at an advantage when applying for university.
The rest of the school’s funds came from a huge variety of sources that included the cafeteria, sales of milk from a vending machine donated by the dairy industry, customer payments for auto body work (that is then used to buy more parts for one of the school’s three shops), and fundraising – not only for an outdoor electronic score board, but for student and staff trips to build schools and dig wells in Africa.
Is it all necessary? Yes, said the school’s new principal Richard Rozario, who has been teaching for 32 years and came from Mississauga Secondary, where the parent council paid for the school’s new bleachers.
“If we want all those things to happen, which I think are vital to the life of a school, then I think yes,” said Rozario. “Is it an extra? I think it’s a necessary extra to have clubs and teams.”
Turner Fenton high school also collected thousands of dollars from students in activity and athletic fees to cover the cost of a year book and to supplement transportation, tournament and uniform expenses.
Although 75 per cent of Ontario’s secondary schools charge student activity fees at the beginning of the school year, most families don’t realize that they can’t be forced to pay them, says People for Education. Although schools may present them as mandatory, such fees are not allowed under the Education Act.
The practice of imposing such fees is even trickling down to younger students. In Peel, Thomas Street Middle School in Mississauga generated $435,836 in ’08-09, the highest amount of any elementary school in the GTA.
A portion came from a $20 per student fee to cover an agenda and three speakers or performances during the year, plus a $10 charge for playing on a competitive sports team.
Although the Peel public board will cover the cost if a family is unable to pay, parents typically report feeling uneasy asking for help.
Marie-Christine Gauthier, of the Social Planning Council of Ottawa, conducted focus groups with almost 200 parents “and the question of school fees was the one that came back at every single school we did. It is a major bane for a growing number of parents” both lower- and middle-class.
“Public education is supposed to be universal and accessible,” she added. “And it’s not if you are singling out or causing hardship to a significant part of the population.”
She blames provincial funding, but also parents who can afford it pushing for more and more fundraising to enrich the curriculum.
The social council has put out a one-page information sheet, translated in many languages, informing parents that any fees for things like
timetables or workbooks aren’t legal.
“It doesn’t stop a lot of schools from doing it, but parents are perfectly within their legal rights to refuse to pay those fees,” Gauthier said.
Although Kidder is not against fundraising – a time-honoured tradition that can bring a sense of community to a school – she said some councils
rake in significant amounts of money and feel pressure to continue doing so. Parents must share some of the blame for the fundraising gone wild, she added.
“We shouldn’t ban fundraising. It’s that we rely on it more and more,” says Kidder.
“We all feel we have the right to pay for whatever it is we want. We’re a more individualistic society than we were 20 years ago. And as parents, we’re all kind of nuts. Everything has to be perfect for my child all the time.”
thestar.ca February 28, 2011 Patty Winsa and Kristin Rushowy Staff Reporters