Friday, February 08, 2008

A weird way to hand out playground money

I just glanced at the government press release last month announcing $1 million in funding for 66 selected school playground projects across the province.
It did seem like be a column might be lurking in there somewhere. When did government decide that its responsibility stopped once the school building was up?
Who made the decision that if kids expect more than a field, their parents should get cracking and raise the money?
For most of the last few decades, playground equipment was something governments provided for children. Often a bit unsafe, maybe, but part of the neighbourhood.
No more. Parent advisory councils are supposed to come up with the money for swings or climbing structures and make it happen.
Which is not too bad for some schools. If Jesse's dad owns a construction company that can provide a crew to install things, the work is taken care of. And maybe Willow's mum, the lawyer, will offer to prepare a couple of wills for someone as an item in silent auction. People pitch in, the $30,000 is raised, the children have somewhere to play. That's how it worked in my neighbourhoods.
But for other schools, it's not so easy. If parents are scraping by, or local economic times are hard, or they just aren't interested, then the playground doesn't get built.
If we were a poor province, you could understand. But when the fiscal year ends March 31, the government will likely have a surplus of close to $3 billion. Last year it was $4 billion.
There is a great deal of official worry about children's fitness. But playgrounds are too expensive.
Anyway, I didn't write that column.
But Jason Harshenin, editor of the Grand Forks Gazette, was considerably more alert.
He wondered why Hutton Elementary School's Parents Advisory Council had been left off the list. The parents had raised $37,000. Pretty good for a school with 240 students. They applied for provincial help through ActNow B.C. for another $23,000. No luck.
Harshenin found out that more than 600 schools had applied for funding under the program designed to encourage children to be more active. Between them, they had $11 million in proposals - about $18,000 per school.
The government only wanted to spend $1 million. It handed the problem of rejecting more than 90 per cent of the requests over to the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils.
So Harshenin asked the confederation how it decided to distribute the money.
A lottery, he was told. The confederation didn't have the time to look at individual applications to assess how urgently they needed help or whether the proposal made sense. All 600 schools' proposals went in a hat, and 66 winners were drawn.
Harshenin was incredulous. Why would the ministry "allocate $1 million to playground funding without instituting some funding formula or funding mechanism for how that money is distributed, especially in light of some of the major challenges facing forestry-based communities in the Interior?"
The ministry pleaded ignorance. We just sent the cheque for $1 million. After that, well, whatever.
Harshenin was also suspicious. Was it really a lottery? Why did only one school in the Kootenays get help? Why wasn't the government more responsible in handling taxpayers' money?
Good questions, but no answers.
I read the column, thought it interesting, and with Harshenin's consent put it up on my blog (
And then, as so often in these days of the Internet, things got even more interesting. The blog allows comments. One poster noted that fewer than half the parent advisory councils in the province are members of the provincial association and wondered if non-members had a chance at the money.
Another parent noted her school had received $10,000 from the parents' council confederation, even though all the money needed for a playground had been raised.
Which highlights the issue. If the government can't afford to pay for all playgrounds, why isn't it least distributing money based on need or some logical criteria?
Footnote: Thanks, obviously, to Jason Harshinen for doing all the real work. His column can be found at his brand new blog at


Allan Smith said...

For the PAC that didn't need the money they shouldn't have applied in the first place ! What a poor example they set for the world. They can still do the right thing, and refuse the cheque and send it back.

Anonymous said...

This government has also been filtering public money, for no logical reason, to boards of education through the BC School Trustees Association. I believe this happened last year with literacy grants... The boards had to apply to their provincial association for the money the lump of money the government gave the BCSTA for literacy. In this case, conveniently, all boards are currently members of the BCSTA but they don't need to be and haven't always been. So where's the accountability? What is the justification for this? Is this a (very flawed) ideological move to try to "contract out" more government functions, including deciding who gets funding? Is the Ministry too understaffed to take one some of their most basic responsibilities, so need "volunteers" (not entirely accurate, but the BCCPAC rep did have a point) to help them dole out cash? Or is this continuing with the strategy to "download blame," as with the government's approach to boards in recent years?

Anonymous said...

And also, what is with this Ministry's insistence with requiring SO MUCH exhaustive reporting, number-crunching, and form-filling from the bottom on up the hierarchy when it just ignores all the work it makes us do?

If the playground money was only going to be a random draw, why did PACs have to apply in the first place? Many, no doubt, put a lot of work and energy into demonstrating need and outlining their plans - especially those that actually had need and plans! (evidently some PACs who received the money didn't)

Similarly, the Ministry sent out an invitation last week for students to write essays in order to be considered for the annual Student Congress. Butt again, the selection process will be random. What is this teaching our students?

I work in the system, and when a student told me a few days ago she was working hard on her essay I had (yet hated) to remind her, "Well, don't forget that the selection process is random..." It's a very unusual message to be sending when our goal is supposed to be education: you must do the work, but we're going to ignore it anyway.

A little farther up the hierarchy, senior district administrators will tell you that they now have between 25-35 reports they need to complete for the Ministry over the course of the school year, which now takes up a huge (and growing) segment of the time they would normally be devoting to their districts, schools, students...

And what are these reports used for? Are they even read? Perhaps read at random? There is never any funding or feedback associated with these mountains of reports and forms, but again they are simply REQUIRED. Maybe the Ministry feels that administrators, students, teachers, and parents don't have anything better to do? (but wait, what about education?)

Patti said...

Good Lord — they're making students write essays to apply for the congress? I entered the draw — no essay required — to attend the all-expense-paid parent congress and won. (Theatre critics have a saying: "Sometimes free is just way too expensive.) Not only would I like the wasted 8 hours of my life back, I'm outraged that it cost, according to one news report, $100,000 for a ministry-controlled, tightly scripted day of diversionary presentations that involved everything except what the day was supposed to be about (engaging directly with the minister etc). I've posted my diary of the day at another blog (my apologies, Paul, if this is bad blog etiquette, but I love both your blog and Janet's just the same...), and subsequent comments note others involved agree -

The Ministry of Ed seems hell bent on tossing money off in all directions — congresses (there was a teachers' congress too and if each costs $100K, that's $300K, and all for ??), grants to BCCPAC with little-to-no accountability for how they get spent. What ever happened to the half million they got last spring for the crystal meth project? Meanwhile school districts have to cut support to special needs kids, drastically reduce library budgets, sell cupcakes (oops, that's been banned) to buy gym equipment, and in my district they've even reducing emergency supplies of food and water to be used post earthquake. What's the deal? Jason, keep asking questions, and Paul, you too!

Anonymous said...

BCCPAC Playground Equipment Draw Process info here:

No way to tell who applied and for how much, nor who got the money and how much they received.

Dawn Steele said...

Thanks for bringing the issue to broader attention, Paul.

The playground funding issue is a microcosm of a much broader, though equally disturbing trend. The questions it raises are just as applicable to the hundreds of millions in tax dollars that the Province has given away in the last 4- 5 years to select groups and organizations to spend, with few or no strings attached, and no accountability or transparency to the tax payers who provided the money in the first place.

This first came to my attention in 2003, when I found out that MCFD gave away just over $100 million in unspent funds from its 2002/03 budget (due to delays in planned restructuring). It seemed particularly irresponsible to me because this happened while the Campbell government was making deep cuts to the Ministry's budget for front-line services to vulnerable kids and families, and I questioned then Finance Minister Gary Collins (who was my MLA) about it at the time.

The MCFD Minister of the day finally gave a list of the recipients a year later in response to questions in the Estimates debates. Little has ever been made public about how these funds were spent (for one $20 million fund, where the only public reporting was a glowing self-evaluation, there were many similar concerns about just who got what and why). I'm sure at least some of this money went to good use, but we'll never know how much.

I've since heard similar concerns raised about the increased tendency for other Ministries to give away money in this fashion, and about the serious risks this poses due to the loss of transparency and accountability.

So while the playground issue illustrates very well why this should worry us, it's still just the tip of the iceberg.

Michelle Kirby said...

Thanks for raising this Paul!

The same can be said for child care money. Accountability? Wasn't that their favourite word not long ago?