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Chevron Refuels Debate over Corporate Money in Schools

Gas giant contributions don't replace lost public dollars but remain hotly contested.

By Katie Hyslop 1 Nov 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is covering the municipal elections for The Tyee. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

The Non-Partisan Association says it would have forced the Vancouver School Board to accept a charitable education program run by Chevron, which provided about $200,000 in school supplies and field trips to the Surrey district last fall.

The issue became part of the Vancouver municipal campaign last week when NPA mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe criticized Vision Vancouver school board chair Patti Bacchus for rejecting Chevron's funding program -- called Fuel Your School -- for "ideological reasons."

In an interview published in The Tyee last spring, Bacchus said she was concerned about the corporate gas giant exerting influence in the classroom.

"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," she said. "Essentially there's a reporting back process involved in these projects, and I think that's potentially a very slippery slope."

But other Metro Vancouver school boards that participate in the program say Chevron doesn't exert influence over what goes on in the classroom.

Last March, the Surrey school district said there are no Chevron logos in schools, and kids don't know where the money comes from for items like light tables and iPads, and neither do their gas-buying parents.

The Burnaby district, which joins Surrey, West and North Vancouver, and Coquitlam in the program's second Canadian run this month, echoed Surrey's assurances that Chevron won't have a presence in their schools.

Under the program, Chevron puts ads in their gas stations telling drivers that $1 from every 30 litres of gas purchased from Nov. 1 to 30 goes towards their fundraising goal of $565,000, which is split between the five B.C. districts.

Bacchus isn't the only one concerned about Chevron's money in schools. Max Cameron, director of the University of British Columbia's Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, is uncomfortable with mixing private and public dollars for what should be a publicly funded service like education.

"I have real reservations about companies that sell fossil fuels that are contributing to the climate crisis having any say in our public affairs," he said.

Chevron 'a good corporate neighbour': superintendent

When Bacchus was going public with her rejection of the Chevron program last spring, the Surrey district had already participated in the program in fall 2013.

Teachers proposed ideas for school supplies and field trips relating to science, technology, engineering and math for their share of the $200,000 funding. Every school that entered had at least one project funded, with some receiving multiple grants. In all, the district estimates more than 7,000 students benefitted from the program.

Burnaby, where city council rejected the expansion of an oil pipeline from energy giant Kinder Morgan last February, has signed onto the Chevron program.

Burnaby district assistant superintendent Roberto Bombelli sees no contradiction.

"This is Chevron, a socially responsible, legitimate company in our community," he said. "They have a refinery in Burnaby. They're a good corporate neighbour."

Chevron put $94 million into worldwide education initiatives in 2013, including Fuel Your School. That's 0.4 per cent of the $21.4 billion in profits they posted last year.

"Since its inception in 2010, Fuel Your School has helped fund 17,163 classroom projects at 3,196 schools in the U.S. The program has grown each year to support students in communities where we have business operations," reads an emailed statement from Chevron spokesperson Brent Tippen.

UBC's Cameron said Chevron's image isn't squeaky clean. He cites an Oct. 29 Facebook post by Robert Reich, secretary of labour under former U.S. President Bill Clinton, nominating Chevron as the worst corporation in America.

Chevron's main faults, according to Reich, are supporting the Republican Party and "bullying" communities that have taken them to court for environmental violations.

"Chevron is not a corporation that deserves high praise for corporate social responsibility," Cameron said. "Our public school money should come from taxpayers, not from private consumption. I think the [Fuel Your School] is actually quite sinister."

But Burnaby's assistant superintendent said that Chevron's money isn't replacing government funding, and the Surrey School District has agreed. Bombelli, who started in the B.C. education system as a science teacher in 1994, said students will meet curriculum goals with or without Chevron's help. But the extras the money provides are still nice.

"In my experience as a teacher, there's usually never enough funding for all the wonderful projects that you can do with kids," he said.  [Tyee]

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