Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Ritziest schools get playground money; neediest shunned

It's worrying that for the second time in six months the government has made a mess of the simple task of handing out money for school playgrounds.
The NDP were quick to hint at some sort of sinister plot in the latest bungle, which saw ritzy private schools get cash while schools in the inner city and struggling rural communities got zip.
And there is an ideological aspect to the decision to deprive poor kids of playgrounds, as if they just aren't worthy of them.
But mostly, this looks like a blend of insensitivity and incompetence. That could be even more worrying.
Especially because the government has been through this once already. In December, it announced $1 million in funding for 66 selected school playground projects across the province.
Good news, it seemed. But Jason Harshenin, editor of the Grand Forks Gazette, wondered why a small local school which had been left off the list despite a great application.
He found the government had passed the job of deciding which schools would get the playground grants on the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Council. There were $10 million worth of applications for the available $1 million.
But the confederation said it didn't have time to read the applications. So it just drew schools' names from a hat. More than 600 applied; 66 were drawn.
It's an irresponsible way to spend taxpayers' money - by lottery, with no effort to seek the best value or return or help schools with the greatest need.
The government looked sloppy. So you would think they would learn.
But no. This month, the government announced $1.5 million in playground grants to 96 parent advisory councils. The grants were based on "demonstrated need," said Solicitor General John van Dongen. (Van Dongen was involved because the money came from gambling profits; the Education Ministry actually ran the program.)
The claim simply wasn't true. Two of the ritziest private schools in Vancouver got $20,000 each. Other schools, with much greater need, were shut out.
It's hard to see any "demonstrated need" at St. George's School, for example. Tuition for an elementary student is $14,240 a year. The school has a big trust fund and full-time fund-raising staff.
It already has two gyms, an indoor swimming pool, three tennis courts, four basketball courts and a full fitness centre.
Yet it got $20,000 for playground equipment, while schools in desperate need of got nothing.
The government structured the grant program up to exclude some schools. It wasn't enough to need playground equipment for the children. Before schools could even apply, they had to have an active parents' advisory council.
That's a given in most affluent neighbourhoods.
But for other schools, keeping a PAC going is a struggle. In a community with a lot of single parents, many working two jobs, it's tough to get active participants. In urban areas with large populations of newcomers to Canada, the concept isn't really established.
And in small towns, where schools face problems of declining enrolments, the PAC can become too much work.
As well, the parents' advisory councils had to have raised matching funds before their applications would even be considered.
Again, no giant problem at St. George's or many public schools with affluent parents who are able to run a successful silent auction or fundraising campaign.
But the requirement is a huge barrier for schools in poor neighbourhoods and struggling committees - the areas in which the playground equipment is most desperately needed.
Education Minister Shirley Bond said the criteria would be reviewed, but offered no other help for schools left off the list.
She couldn't explain why the government thought children should be denied access to playgrounds of their parents couldn't raise thousands of dollars to cover half the costs.
And Bond certainly couldn't explain how her ministry had botched playground grants again after last year's debacle.
Footnote: The obvious solution is simply to provide playground grants to school districts and let them decide where the need is greatest. The current program is unfair and needlessly bureaucratic and complex. The government's reluctance to trust school boards to manage the process is baffling.


Anonymous said...

I think I already pointed out to you, Paul, the trustworthyess of the words of "Two Fish van Dongen". If it wasn't so deporable on so many fronts it would be hysterical.

Anonymous said...

The government does such things because they figure they can get away with it. Besides the polls back them. They are a arrogent bunch. It's sad to see some of those back bench thumping along with anything the front row says.

Anonymous said...

Actually the solution is obvious, go back and do things the way the NDP did and don’t fund a single playground in the province for an entire decade. This was the critics can’t cherry pick you selection criteria, after all no criteria will be perfect.

By the way…nice journalism Wilcocks you conveniently forget to mention that the NDP didn’t fund any playgrounds whatsoever. Wonder why you overlook the obvious ?

RossK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RossK said...

just fixin' my typos.....

Let's see if I've got this straight....

This is a government program that give public funds to private schools while public schools go wanting?

Sounds like they're using the reverse Robin Hood criteria to me.

And the Sheriff of Nottingham.....errrr St. Georges' Point Grey would be?

Allan Smith said...

The private schools met the stated requirements, so what if they are rich beyond belief, they qualified. They also get paid more per student by the Ministry of Education that your public schools, now why don't you worry about that ?

For the schools that don't have a PAC, trust me it isn't that much work to have a basic PAC that qualifies for various government funding. That is just an excuse of people who don't want to be involved and yet want to reap the benefits.

Anonymous said...

Whoa Allan Smith. Private schools get way too much public funding, in my opinion, but they don’t get more than public schools (it's actually half per student, if they qualify), and they don’t get capital funding. But at any rate, you’re also wrong about PACs. It’s a big commitment to take on gaming funds. It requires a separate bank account and leaves the PAC open to an audit (my PAC had one this year — not fun trying to unravel the accounting records for past years when those who handled the money are no longer at the school). Factor in schools where the majority of parents don’t speak English, many are single and lots are just trying to keep the rent paid and food on the table — that’s the reality for some communities. And remember that these are communities where kids may not have access to back yards, paid extra-curricular sports etc. or other safe places to play, and you can see who really needs the playground money.

And the reason they don’t do the sensible thing and hand the funds to school boards, that are elected to represent local needs and allocated funds accordingly, is that they would miss out on those opportunities for MLAs to send press releases out from their constituency offices so they can arrange photo opps with their community newspapers where they hand overt those giant cheques to grateful children. Oh and did you notice that Shirley Bond’s riding got a way disproportionate share of the grants?

Someone needs to ask St. George’s if their already-built, magnificent playground is available for use by the public, as are playgrounds at public schools. Or do they close the gates and release the hounds on trespassers?

Anonymous said...

Yes, let's get real, Mr. Smith. Do you really think most BC taxpayers want to hand over our hard-earned tax dollars for government to shower them on the super rich for private playgrounds that local kids will never be allowed to use? What if they'd given your tax dollars away instead to pay for a private gym for some union or corporation? This is no less ludicrous.

And anon, no one is saying it's a bad thing for this government to be funding playgrounds. That's totally consistent with the policy of promoting healthy living, which most people support. But if you're going to use my tax dollars to that end, spend them wisely and effectively. They've bumbled badly on this - twice now - and it demonstrates a worrying level of ineptness in managing the public purse to achieve public policy goals.

(And in fairness, the NDP was spending twice as much in the 1990s on overall school capital infrastructure as the BC Liberals have since they've come into office. The capital funding shortfall is exponentially higher than the amount they're now handing out for playgrounds.)

School playgrounds would most appropriately be funded through school boards and the existing capital funding mechanisms, which are subject to checks and balances, transparency and public processes that involve local communities, thereby maximizing the likelihood that limited funds will be targetted at the most urgent local needs. This is really a no brainer unless politics is a higher priority than the public interest.

Allan Smith said...

Like I said, not that hard to maintain a PAC gaming account, a little bit of paperwork, separate account etc. Done it for many years. The audits are a joke. Unless you totally screw it up, the worst you get is a letter telling you what you did you wrong and how to improve. I know of no PAC's who ever stopped getting gaming funds due to filling out paperwork wrong. Only due to dishonest actions.
Funny how you all assume that immigrants are stupid and can't handle this process.
Besides any school secretary can help fill out the forms, and BCCPAC and even the Gaming branch provides endless help on the matter.
What it is, is the parents of the schools who don't have a PAC are showing their apathy. If you want the playground grants, do a little work.

Anonymous said...

Not knowing allan smith but just reading the posts here, I'd bet that he'd also advocate that homeless people and those on welfare should just pull up their socks and find jobs. After all there are lots of jobs out there.

Allan Smith said...

Yes don't assume to know me. I recently purchased 5 homes, renovated them and are renting them to single moms, with kids, for about $400 a month under market conditions. Why, because I believe in social justice and often people only need a little help to do big things.
Someone has to get those parents together and form their PAC and together they will do great things. Sorry to say my hands are full at present but come on people, get together and help !

Anonymous said...

It's Pollyanna attitudes like Allan Smith's (that is IF he actually believes what hes preached here) that seem to be a satisfactory substitute for actually helping people in need.
"Teach a man to fish" and wash your hands of him if he's too (lazy, stupid, chronically depressed, overwhelmed, mentally incapacitated, ill, drug addicted, etc.) to learn. Is that it Allan?

Anonymous said...

So, Mr. Smith, setting aside your facile conclusion that parent apathy is the reason for non-functional PACs (actually reading some research on this might permit you to share more useful insights next time), that great heart of yours calls for punishing the kids at all those poor/immigrant schools where it seems all the "apathetic" parents are clustered?

Anonymous said...

(...oops, hit the send too quickly)

Further, Mr. Smith, it's not our place to go into those schools and force the parents to create PACs just so that their kids can get "great things", and neither is it necessary.

Because they already have the infrastructure they need in place to secure and spend funding for playgrounds and everything else -- i.e. the school boards we all elect to manage education funding in consultation with parents and other education partners.

(Which is not to suggest that there are not other benefits to supporting better engagement of parents in school life, but there are other, and usually much better ways to achieve such engagement than PACs that spend all their energy doing fundraising.)

paul said...

To all, thanks for a generally courteous debate.
If I could introduce one caution, it would be against assumptions about motives or what people might be for or against.
People have advanced reasonable positions in their comments. The discussion should be about the best way policy solution in light of the points raised, not about who raised them.
Thanks for the interesting discussion.
Paul Willcocks