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Corporate Fundraising Fuels School Trustee Concerns

Funding from Chevron helped Surrey, but Vancouver district pushes back.

By Katie Hyslop 6 Mar 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

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Chevron's social investment manager helped deliver building blocks to Surrey's Bear Creek elementary last year; part of its Fuel Your School fundraising campaign.

The Vancouver School District isn't opposed to accepting corporate donations from private businesses to help fund school supplies and programming. But school board chair Patti Bacchus is concerned about the "aggressive" pursuit of the district's business by the Chevron-funded Fuel Your School fundraising campaign.

During a Fuel Your School drive, Chevron puts posters up at gas stations in the district informing customers $1 from every purchase of 30 litres of gas or more will go towards the school projects until they reach their $200,000 fundraising goal.

Bacchus says Vancouver district staff has already met with My Class Needs, the non-profit organization Chevron has teamed up with to deliver Fuel My School, to discuss, and ultimately decide against, participating in the fundraiser.

Bacchus says Chevron's logo appeared on many of the supporting documents My Class Needs provided the district, which goes against the district's advertising policy.

She's concerned the project, which calls on teachers to post their projects on My Class Needs' website and compete with other teachers' project ideas for funding, opens teachers up to having their projected evaluated and possibly vetoed by a corporation.

A potential 'slippery slope'

But it's also the extra incentive to buy Chevron's gas -- and the use of Chevron's logo in the supporting documents My Class Needs has sent the district -- that makes the school board chair uncomfortable.

"Many [corporate donations] are just really donations that are provided for specific programs, but usually there's no strings attached or no requirement to use corporately logoed materials or buy the product," Bacchus told The Tyee.

"I think we want to be cautious when there's a corporate body involved in having an impact or influence on what [teachers are] teaching in classrooms and how they're doing that, and essentially there's a reporting back process involved in these projects, and I think that's potentially a very slippery slope."

Bacchus believes districts might feel pressured to accept funding that goes against their policies because of rising education costs and a frozen provincial budget.

Yet despite the rejection, My Class Needs is still contacting the district.

"They have continued to follow up fairly aggressively in copying me, wanting meetings," Bacchus said. "[This is] is supposed to be a charitable initiative, but I believe has a strong corporate component."

Funds went to music, microscopes

Last fall the Surrey School District became the first district in Canada to run Fuel My School, which has already been running in the United States, Malaysia, and Thailand for five years. Almost 200 projects -- involving more than 7,000 students -- were funded in Surrey to the tune of $200,000.

Projects were required to meet specific criteria: they had to enhance learning, not just fund core education schools are supposed to provide students; and must be related to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. In the first round of applications, where one project from each school was submitted in order to ensure fairness, every project was funded.

"There was a second round after that, so schools who had put forward one application had an opportunity to put forward a second. All or close to all of those projects in the second round were funded," explained Liane Ricou, manager of business development at the district.

Some schools submitted third, fourth, and fifth project ideas that weren't funded because by that point money had run out. The project officially ended in January.

Funded projects included iPads for students, a salmon hatchery kit, musical instruments to allow for studying timing, rhythm and other mathematics of music, a model human skeleton and microscopes.

Surrey School Board chair Shawn Wilson says Fuel Your School offered teachers and students great education opportunities they might not have otherwise been able to afford.

"There's no targeted money [from government] for those kinds of purchases," said Wilson, referring to the education funding the provincial government provides.

"Your operational funding is for the provision of services, and sometimes we have to look at what is absolutely necessary for public education and child's learning, and what things are additional."

So when corporations or organizations come along to offer extra funding, and it meets the board's policy requirements for donations, Wilson says they take it.

Examples of other ongoing funding partnerships include the Envision Jazz Festival, sponsored by Envision Financial, which funds school band instruments in Surrey and puts on a student jazz competition.

"You just simply couldn't do that with your funding that's targeted for core education," said Wilson.

Chevron wouldn't 'veto' projects

Both My Class Needs and Chevron say there was no Chevron logos in schools and only principals and teachers were informed Chevron was the funder. Instead of promoting Chevron to students and their families, the gas company says the idea behind Fuel Your School is enhancing students publicly funded education -- laudable goal that meets Chevron's needs, too.

"We support science, technology, engineering and math, and in British Columbia in particular, with the development of the energy industry and resource sector here, we recognize the skills that might be needed for future jobs and hopefully these kids can one day come work for a company like Chevron and in our industry," said Chevron spokesperson Adrien Byrne.

The district says no Chevron logos were posted in schools, and parents weren't informed about the program, let alone encouraged to buy gas at Chevron. But a video on My Class Needs' Vimeo account about Fuel Your School clearly shows Chevron logos in a Surrey classroom.

Byrne says that's a promotional video, made at the invitation of the Surrey School Board.

"We definitely made that video more as a communications piece as we expand into other markets, [so that] they will have a better understanding of what we do," he said.

Chevron says they didn't have any control over who was funded, either. Nor would they veto science projects that went against the usage of fossil fuels, either, even if they could.

"We like to think that we're a more environmental organization than others. We recognize that we are an energy company, [but] definitely we keep that at arms length and we wouldn't veto or get involved in anything like that," said Byrne.

Boards depend on donations

Although Chevron isn't 100 per cent sure they will run another Fuel My School program in Canada, they are already talking about doing another one in Surrey next September. They'd also like to expand to other districts, too, but are limited to those with Chevron gas stations, which are mostly in the Lower Mainland.

My Class Needs, a registered Canadian charity, has other ways for teachers to raise money for class projects. Starting last year, the program launched a website that allows teachers to post project ideas, with a budget for supplies, in order to crowd source the funding from donors across Canada and internationally.

Teachers from any publicly funded school -- which includes independent schools in B.C. that receive public funding -- can post project ideas.

Executive director Amy Coupal, herself a former teacher, says they don't accept requests for funding for supplies considered part of core education, like text books or desks. Instead it's about funding supplies teachers would otherwise by paying out of pocket to buy.

"We've had teachers who, as a result of the resources they've been able to get, participate in with their students international student film competitions," she said.

"We have a classroom that fundraised for silk screening equipment so they could teach their students about entrepreneurship, so they make and sell t-shirts. They get to do an art project, they get to develop a business model, they get to do some interesting things."

Coupal says the best part is the excitement of the students, who feel like people they've never met care about their education.

But the same argument could be made that government should be covering school needs. Asked if she thought government endorsed boards accepting outside donations and corporate help, Bacchus said, "Probably the best way to promote it is to underfund schools so they're desperate and in a situation where they have few alternatives."

With increasing expenses on boards, such as hikes to BC Hydro and Medical Services Plan fees, contributions to the teachers' pension plan, and salary increases for education assistants, secretaries, and other CUPE employees -- without a funding increase from government to cover these costs -- boards dependence on outside donations will grow.

Surrey's Wilson agrees that education funding is tight for districts right now, but he says even if government increased education funding, it would go towards core education. Teachers would still be paying for extras, like the kind My Class Needs and Fuel Your School funds, out of their own pockets.

"I would say no matter how much money [government] give you, you'll always finds ways that you would like to do more," he said. "It's tight, I'll say that, it's tight."  [Tyee]

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