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