Province aims to take over school-playground funding

Parents who’ve spent years raising tens of thousands of dollars to replace aging school playground equipment say a provincial fund to cover the costs can’t come soon enough.

“Literally, it would help create an even playing field,” said Aaren Madden, a mother at Victoria West Elementary School.

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But how the province will cover those costs is unclear.

On Monday, Education Minister Rob Fleming said the province is consulting parent groups on how to create a funding model that would make the need for parents to fundraise for playgrounds “disappear.”

It’s part of planning for the next fiscal year, he said. “The policy idea is to relieve parents of the heavy burden of having to fundraise at their parent advisory committees — sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars — to have what is pretty basic to a school: playground equipment,” Fleming said. “It will either be a grant or allocation to the school district to internally make their own grants.”

The fund will apply to older schools that need maintenance and replacements, as well as overcrowded schools that need a second playground, rather than new schools, Fleming said.

The government has not determined a budget for the fund and is reviewing a similar program under the former Liberal government that provided $8 million over two years, he said. “We’re looking at what the demand is right now so that we can estimate the kind of funding that might be required to meet that demand. We suspect it’s quite built up. There hasn’t been a playground capital fund in British Columbia for five years,” he said.

Madden, whose son is in Grade 6 and daughter is in Grade 4, said it’s been heartbreaking to watch kids work hard on fundraising projects, only to graduate before the play equipment is built.

She has spent three years volunteering with a group of parents to reach a $50,000 fundraising goal for new equipment, but they are still $18,000 short.

The old play structure is falling apart, she said. “Gradually, as pieces become unsafe, they are removed by the school district. There’s less and less of it each year; it’s in rough shape.”

The group received a grant from the City of Victoria and some local business support, plus the kids participate in a walk-a-thon each year. “They work so hard and have this lovely event that brings the whole school community together. It’s a fantastic day. But ultimately, their hard work is unrewarded. It’s starting to really hurt my heart, because they’ve been working so hard for this and we are just struggling to make it happen.”

Audrey Smith, president of the Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, said the current system creates a disparity between have and have-not schools. Beyond time and money, parents with grant-application-writing experience give their schools a significant advantage. Others benefit from social-media savvy — Torquay Elementary won $100,000 for its playground last year in a provincewide competition, as part of the B.C. Automobile Association Play Here program.

Smith said that after years of fundraising, many parents have been surprised to learn that they also have to raise money to install the play apparatus. She estimated the average total pricetag at $80,000 to $100,000. “That’s a lot of money, especially when you’re doing it in product sales and coupon-book sales and fun fairs.”

Those who reach their goal have learned there’s a backlog of construction demands for schools. “There are PACs in September who mentioned they have enough money to purchase their playground and install it, but because of all the portables being built [by workers] that do the installations as well, there’s a long waitlist,” Smith said.

Smith said that leaves parents worried. “While we’re sitting on this money, what if the price of equipment or installation goes up?”

Liberal education critic Dan Davies, a former Grade 6 teacher, said he is concerned by the lack of information about the playground fund, noting that Premier John Horgan asked Fleming to create the fund in his mandate letter.

“Here we are, months into an NDP government, they are into a budget update where they do have specific control over delivering on this promise. But they have not delivered,” Davies said.

asmart@timescolonist.com

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