A back-and-forth argument for education has been taking place between parent advocates and Chilliwack’s MLA Laurie Throness.
The District Parent Advisory Council first wrote to Throness on May 19, along with MLA John Martin, the minister of education, Chilliwack’s superintendent of schools and the school trustee board chair.
In the letter, the DPAC president Justine Hodge spelled out how less funding has equalled more fundraising among students’ families. The DPAC also announced its intention to use their collective power to actively advocate for proper education funding.
“Our membership has grown significantly, and we have committed to spreading awareness regarding the negative impacts underfunding has had on the public school system in Chilliwack and throughout the province,” Hodge wrote. “Parents of public school students in Chilliwack make up a great portion of your constituents, and we are exceedingly dissatisfied.”
Over recent years, the pressure to fundraise has grown among parent advisory councils at many schools. Whereas parents would once gather as a council and elect to fundraise for special field trips, while connecting to discuss education, it has become increasingly important to fund other areas of education.
PACs in Chilliwack over the past few years have funded items like iPads, new carpeting for classrooms, treadmill repair, drinking fountains, and even supplementary art instruction.
Parents are urged to solicit donations from their employers, business owners they know, neighbours, friends, family for a laundry list of goods, from $5 chocolate bars to $10 burger and beer nights, to $40 flower baskets. There are even outright requests for sponsorships and cash donations, which many parents prefer over the trouble of going door to door.
Chilliwack schools are facing very real budget pressures, and teachers and administration do put in requests for funding to their PACs.
MLA Throness wrote a letter back to the DPAC saying “it is difficult to see how the government could devote a greater percentage of its budget toward education for two reasons. First, the number of students in the K-12 system is declining…Second, British Columbians also strongly support health care, which makes up an ever-increasing portion of our provincial budget.”
He said that “significant resources” have been made available to school boards and he has “every confidence that they will continue to do a first-rate job at managing the budget of SD 33”.
MLA John Martin is currently working on setting up a date to discuss the matter with DPAC members, Hodge says. Nobody else who was sent the letter gave a formal response.
Hodge’s letter of May 19 highlighted a number of the budget pressures felt within the school district, including a $1.3 million administration cut which has only been partly reinstated since, a massive, B.C.-wide technology upgrade project that cost the district more than half a million dollars this school year, and will cost $115,000 next year, busing fees offloaded to already-strapped parents — including Promontory parents who have no choice but to bus their children out of their catchment area because that elementary school is so congested.
She also noted custodial cuts, which at overcrowded schools means some desks are cleaned every second day, and desks for intermediate students are cleaned once a week.
“These desks double as eating tables for students, creating an opportune breeding ground for germs and bacteria,” she pointed out.
It’s unfair to offload such essential needs to parents, Hodge said. Many cannot afford to participate in the fundraising.
“Parents are asked to fundraise for playgrounds, library books, on-line math and reading programs, sports equipment, and even text books,” she wrote. “Some PACs have even been asked to pay for water fountains, classroom fixtures, and carpet. Parent fundraising has gone way beyond enhancing students’ educational experiences, and in some cases is necessary to keep the school operational.
“This is unacceptable, especially to students attending schools in less affluent neighbourhoods where parents may be unable to contribute financially to fundraising. This creates a gap between have and have-not schools and means some students are not provided with the same resources and opportunities as their peers in neighbouring schools.
It’s each PAC’s constitutional duty to promote parent involvement, educate parents on their rights within the school system, organize community-building events, and contribute to the overall effectiveness of the school.
“However,” Hodge wrote. “The role of the PAC has shifted and because the focus is fundraising, the legislated purpose and constitutional duties of the PAC can no longer be fulfilled. Thus, the Chilliwack District Parent Advisory Council will continue to speak out against the chronic and unacceptable underfunding of public education in BC.
Throness has also responded publicly to the DPAC, writing in a letter to the editor (see page 9) saying “the Province has not cut K-12 spending.”
“On capital, we have been very well-served by our government,” Throness says. “Over the past 10 years School District 33 has received almost $140 million in capital expenditures. Our schools are beautiful and expertly managed.”