Midtown public schools flush with fundraising cash while others struggle

Parents in high-income areas such as Leaside are able to raise funds for playground improvements and iPads, whereas those in low-income areas require significant help

Fundraising has become an increasingly important source of income for Toronto’s public schools. This has led to a large disparity between schools in high-income areas and those in low-income areas, where students’ parents may not be able to contribute as much.

For the 2015–2016 school year, Bessborough Drive Elementary and Middle School in Leaside amassed $207,265 through fundraising, whereas Thorncliffe Park Public School raised $41,071, Grenoble Public School in Flemingdon Park mustered $36,236, and Flemington Public School in Lawrence Heights was only able to raise $4,485.

Robyn Israel, chair of the school council at Bessborough Drive Elementary, said they hold fundraising events such as pizza parties, fun fairs and even axe-throwing events with silent auctions, drinks and food.

“In the very beginning of the year, we get a collection of wants and needs from the administration, the teachers and the parents. So we could fundraise anywhere between 50 and 80 thousand dollars, depending on the needs,” she said.

In past years, Bessborough’s fundraisers’ proceeds have been put toward equipment such as iPads, Smart Boards, laptops and robotic and microscopic equipment to go with it. Last year, the school put in a new playground for the kindergartners using money raised at a fundraiser.

“The teachers wanted more interactive play for our kindergartners, so last year we put in a sandbox and some plantings, flower beds, outdoor chalkboards. I do know how much we raised, but I don’t know if I’m comfortable saying that amount. It is an extraordinarily high dollar amount,” Israel said.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) argues school fundraising disparities are symptomatic of a provincial education system that has been underfunded for nearly 20 years.

Susan Swackhammer, vice-president of the ETFO, said the educational funding formula has made fundraising of prime importance to Toronto schools.

“I went from teaching at a school in an upper-middle-class area that made $30,000 a year from fundraising to an inner-city school that made $2,200. So you’re not going on trips, and you’re not buying Smart Boards or iPads,” Swackhammer said. “Back when I began my teaching career, fundraising bought stickers and stamps, but now that fundraising is actually necessary to keep the school running. It’s crazy.”

It’s becoming more and more common for parent councils in affluent areas to rally funds for larger school projects. Allenby Junior Public School raised $100,000 in 2015 for a new turf field, and Earl Beatty Public School near Danforth Avenue has recently done the same.

Brown Public School in Casa Loma partnered with the Whole Foods at Yorkville Village to help fund a community garden initiative. On Sept. 20, five per cent of all grocery sales was donated to the school’s garden project.

Dimitra Kappos, chair of the Brown Junior Public School parent council said the project consists of 80 to 100 milk crates filled with plants and vegetables, and expects to raise approximately $5,000 through the Whole Foods campaign.

“We have so many different initiatives that we have at the school, having somebody like Whole Foods step up … eases the burden on other fundraising that we do to actually focus on different things,” she said.

Swackhammer said that, although there’s an obvious disparity in terms of fundraising across the GTA, it’s not something that can be so easily corrected.

“It’s a very contentious thing because I can tell you, if I were to go to the community that raised $30,000 and say you have to split that equally with the other schools, you can imagine what the response would be,” she said.

However, some schools have successfully partnered with others in less affluent areas to help contribute to the pot.

Bessborough Drive Elementary donates a portion of the money it fundraises to the Empower Reading program for two Toronto District School Board (TDSB) schools in lower-income areas. The program costs $5,000, and Bessborough holds a separate fundraiser each year for this reason. Last year, the school donated the program to Flemingdon Park and Victoria Park schools.

Shari Schwartz-Maltz, spokesperson for the TDSB, said the board also aims to level the playing field through programs such as Model Schools, which donates funds to schools in the GTA for extras like field trips, guest speakers and iPads.

The TDSB has identified 150 “model schools,” determined by its Learning Opportunities Index, which takes into account a number of census information points such as education and income in each area.

Flemington P.S. was number four on the list and received $15,407 of funding for the 2015–2016 school year.

The ETFO recently proposed seven recommendations on how to fix the current funding system, dubbed Shortchanging Ontario’s Students: An Overview and Assessment of Education Funding in Ontario. The ETFO hired economist Hugh Mackenzie to prepare the report.

“You can’t solve the problem of growing inequality from fundraising by addressing fundraising. You can only address the problem by addressing the reasons why the fundraising is exploding in the first place,” Mackenzie said.

“All of the data tells us that there are more children living in poverty in the public education system in Ontario now than there were in 2002. The data tells us that there are more children with special needs and the systems need more special support for students whose first language isn’t English. And yet the funding isn’t growing It’s shrinking.”

At Flemington P.S. more than 60 per cent of students have a primary language other than English.

Mackenzie argued the provincial government should be reviewing its funding structure every five years.

Swackhammer said, despite everything, she’s optimistic about the future of schools in Ontario.

“I’m hopeful,” she said. “We’re coming up to a provincial election in 2018. Maybe all the parties can have a look at what their platforms will be.”