Threats and ploys to get voluntary fees

JODY O'CALLAGHAN
Last updated 09:25 30/01/2013

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Schools are offering $100 meal vouchers and early payment discounts to encourage parents to pay "voluntary" fees, and threatening public shaming of those who don't.

Despite primary and secondary state education being nominally free, parents contribute more than $100 million a year in fees that cannot be legally enforced.

Principals say it is a struggle to keep schools up with 21st century expectations with what funding the Government provides. Total operations grants received by the country's 2500-plus schools in 2012 was $1.2 billion, excluding tax.

A Dominion Post survey of more than 25 schools in the lower North Island yielded an overwhelming consensus that government funding was not enough to provide even the basics, and fell far short of paying for increasingly essential computer technology.

That meant that "schools are being forced to ask parents for more and more in the way of ‘donations' and a lot of parents are struggling to meet these demands", Labour education spokesman Chris Hipkins said.

Ministry of Education figures show $103m was paid in school donations in 2011, compared with $99m in 2010 and 2009, and $75m in 2008.

"I've seen reports of schools doubling the donations they ask for in recent years," Hipkins said.

"If the Government don't fund them adequately, they just have no choice."

At Masterton Primary School, only about 30 per cent of parents paid the voluntary $40 fee, principal Sue Walters said.

This year she planned to publicly thank those parents that paid by naming them in the school newsletter.

"That way, if you're not on the list, get a conscience."

Tamatea Primary School, near Napier, encourages early fee payment by offering the chance to win a $100 meal voucher or a 10 per cent fee discount.

Principal Wiremu Pearson said the incentive resulted in about 60 per cent of parents paying the $28-a-child "donation" last year, up from 27 per cent five years ago.

Principals' Federation president Phil Harding said it was becoming harder and harder for schools to meet increasing expectations on present funding levels. "IT - man, that sucks up money."

Of Rongotai College's $1.2m operations grant, only $24,000 was assigned by the Education Ministry for information and communication technology, principal Kevin Carter said. But it cost the school up to $150,000, especially to maintain ultrafast broadband.

Consequently, the school asked parents for a $225 donation to pay for "core elements of education".

"We try to work with parents to get them to pay it because we have to make sure that we can cover the costs," Carter said.

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"If you don't keep up with what the other schools are doing, parents vote with their feet."

All schools provided annual financial reports to the ministry, but he did not believe the ministry paid any attention to them, since funds never matched costs.

Tawa College asks for an annual activities fee of $290 a pupil, mainly to cover computer resources, library books, and sport and culture. Anything extra, such as musical instruments and lockers, incurs more fees.

Principal Murray Lucas said the school could ask for lower donations, but the education offered to pupils would be "crude and rustic".

About 70 per cent paid the donation, and he admired them for making sacrifices when many were "struggling from day to day".

"If we're going to keep up, we're going to need a large block paying it. [But] we don't do anything like debt collectors.

"Most parents want to do the right thing by their school."

Wellington High School asks families to contribute $300 to cover "enhancements" to their child's core education.

School operations grants were not enough, particularly for ICT, principal Nigel Hanton said.

"Between the expectation we have to be providing 21st century learning environments and the money we have, there are huge gaps."

FUNDING DRAMAS

Many schools have "deliberately muddied the water" on whether school fees are mandatory or voluntary, Consumer NZ chief executive Sue Chetwin says.

Ministry of Education guidelines state "there is no charge for primary and secondary education at state and state-integrated schools for children aged 5-19 years who are New Zealand citizens or permanent residents".

State-integrated schools can charge fees, called "attendance dues", for property costs or building maintenance, and state schools can charge for take-home items, activities or events that enhance but are not essential to teaching the curriculum.

Chetwin said parents contacting Consumer NZ were always told education was supposed to be free, but the reality was that there was no such thing as a free education in New Zealand.

"Schools are between a rock and a hard place when there is not enough funding to run the school."

Last year, some schools were found to be enlisting the help of debt collectors to claim unpaid "donations".

In 2010, Karamu High School in Hastings was reprimanded after advising a parent that her daughter could not buy a ball ticket or order a school-leaver's jersey until donation money was paid. The threat was withdrawn after the ministry became involved.

HOW SCHOOLS SHAPE UP

The Dominion Post asked more than 25 schools in the lower North Island about voluntary fees being asked of parents this year. The overwhelming consensus was that government funding was not enough to provide even the basics, and fell far short of paying for increasingly essential computer technology. Here's what some said:

Sacred Heart College principal Lisl Prendergast said all Catholic schools charged parents a $780 annual fee that went straight to the national Catholic body. But the Lower Hutt school made it "extremely clear" that another donation of $610 was voluntary. The government operations grant given to the school only covered between 50 and 60 per cent of what was required to "make ends meet'', she said. "We don't harass our parent body or endlessly ring them up ... And we do have quite a reasonable take-up rate." 


Horowhenua College has a donation fee of roughly $45 per student. Principal Brenda Burns relies on outside help to fund students' activities, last year securing about $12,000 in grants from charities and other organisations. ''We are not an affluent society here; a lot of families are struggling. We have a hardship fund and try and help them if they really cannot pay for a child's uniform or activity.'' A reasonable proportion of parents contributed to donations, but not many did last year. Occasionally pupils missed out on activities the following year if parents refused to pay.

Waikanae School principal Bevan Campbell said it was looking at cutting some activities this year because so many parents were not paying school donations. The primary school charged an annual donation of $70 per child; $100 for two; and $150 for three or more. ''A substantial number of parents don't pay. This year we are looking at introducing a new regime - if they don't pay they do not have the activity." State funding would never be enough, he said. ''Schools' role now is to cut their suit to fit the cloth."

Paraparaumu College charges an annual donation fee of $125 for one student, $180 for two for more; course fees vary from $10 to $500. Some parents choose to pay by direct credit. Principal Gregor Fountain said schools had become increasingly reliant on donations to deliver the sort of education parents and communities wanted.

Otaki College acting principal Andy Fraser said a huge number of parents used time payments to cover their annual donations of $50 per student, $80 for two and $30 each for more than two. Course fees varied from $20 to $850. Special extensions could be made for families facing hardship. ''No college wants to disadvantage kids through money. It puts us and parents under real pressure at times. You are running a school on an oily rag now. ... Unfortunately there are times we spend more time worrying about where the next dollar is coming from."

Te Mata School in Havelock North asks for a $145 school donation per child, discounted to $130 if paid by April. Principal Michael Bain said about 94 per cent of the parents paid the voluntary donation last year. The money went into operational costs, subsidised trips, classroom materials, sports programmes, broadband and IT expenses. ''We're conscious that our fees are relative high compared to most others but I think it reflects that we deliver a quality outcome. ... most of my parents don't see it as a prohibitive cost.'' The school would not be able to operate on state funding only: ''Without that we would be trimmed fairly bare to the bones.''

Makaoura College, Masterton, asks for $65 per pupil per year. Principal Tom Hullena said parents with hardship issues could ''seek grants from various places''. On state-funding, he said, ''To do what we think necessary to give every student opportunities we seek funding outside the state, from charities and other organisations.''

Hastings Girls' High School asks for a $50 school donation, along with a ''small cost'' for supplied materials according to the subjects chosen by students.

Hastings Boys' High School asks for a school donation of $95, or $150 for two or more pupils. There is also an IT technology fee and cultural fee, both $35.

Wairarapa College, Masterton, asks for a $120 donation for one student, $190 for two; and $230 for three or more. Principal Mike Schwass said there was ''not much'' the school could do if parents refused to pay the donation. ''I guess we just have to respect that it's voluntary.'' On state funding: ''It's very hard to do what we'd like to do with the students with what we've got. And sometimes we've got to make some tough calls to try and maximise the educational opportunities for the students.''

Wainuiomata High School asks parents for a voluntary donation of $80 per child. A representative said it did not and could not do anything to ''make'' parents pay the amount. ''I am not prepared to reveal what percentage of families pay the donation, but we are usually disappointed by the percentage." There was a ''shortfall'' between the ministry's funding and the high school's wish list, so the donations income allowed the school to purchase IT equipment and capital equipment, and subsidise extra-curricular activities. ''To be fair to the ministry, our funding allows us to provide a good education to our students. What worries me is all the 'bells and whistles' higher decile schools can offer ... I worry that the gap between 'have' and 'have-not' schools can only continue to widen.''

Havelock North High School asks parents to pay $310 for one child to attend the school, with a maximum of $535 for a family. About 60 per cent of parents paid a donation last year. Principal Greg Fenton said the decile-nine school was not funded as well as lower decile schools because the Government perceived that the community could support the school - but the school's families had been hit too by the economic downturn.''The funding we get from the Government is nowhere near enough to run the school off from what we want to offer the kids. ... We appeal to parents on the basis that if we want to provide the sort of education for their kids that they are expecting, we need to be supported by the community.''

Taupo-nui-a-tia College, Taupo, charges $125 for the first child at the school, $95 for the second, $75 for the third. Principal Peter Moyle said donations were ''definitely voluntary''. ''We just try and outline what the school has to cater for and what the costs involved are. We don't put any pressure on them.'' He said state-funding did not ''even come close'' to covering costs, with IT expenditure a prime example. ''We hear things about 21st century learners but every year the costs get bigger and bigger. It's very difficult.''

Wellington Girls' College asks for three donations of parents: $275 for ''general education support'', $185 towards the provision of ''state-of-the-art technology facilities'', and $170 towards the school's development fund, which funds projects not provided for by the Ministry of Education. Parents with more than one daughter at the school need only pay the $170 donation once, but the $275 and $185 figures are per student. Principal Julia Davidson said, though all were optional, most parents paid the all three donations. ''Some families will pay one and not the other. If they ever want to make a choice, they can. We think it's more honest to say, 'This is where your money's going'.''

On its website, Onslow College stresses that the donation is ''optional''. For parents with one child at the school it is $250, for those with two or more, it is $350. Principal Peter Leggat said the school relied upon the additional income from donations because government funding was insufficient. ''We have a really significant number of parents who appreciate the fact that the funding we get from central government doesn't allow us to provide what their kids need, and what we want to offer.'' He estimated about 70 per cent of parents at Onslow did pay the donation. ''We don't put any pressure on people in any way, but we certainly encourage them.''

At Hutt Valley High School, an individual student is $200, and a family $350. A statement on its website said ''like any state school, [the school relied] on the generosity of our parents, caregivers and wider community to fund the activities that simply cannot be provided were we to rely only upon our central government funding.'' Fees can be paid as a lump sum or by instalments made throughout the year.

Taita College executive officer Michael O'Flaherty said the school's fees for 2013 were $150 per student, or $120 each for pupils with siblings at the school. This was the same as 2012's figures. He said the donation was necessary because of inadequate government funding. ''We need every cent we can get. We've got a range of things we like to offer the kids. ... it's not used solely for sports or solely for the library.'' He said the donation was optional, and not a high percentage of parents paid it.

According to its website, Newlands College charges a voluntary donation of $150 per student or $270 for two or more in a family. The revenue is ''used to benefit all pupils in and outside the classroom''.

At Mana College, Porirua, the donation for one student is $100 and $150 for for two or more. A flat ''sport fee'' of $40 and another fee of $2 for a ''log book'' is charged to all parents.

William Colenso College in Napier took students from Year 7, but parents were not asked to pay the $45 donation until their children reached Year 9. While this was a voluntary donation, parents were ''expected'' to pay the fee for extra-curricular activities, which covered the cost of students playing in sports tournaments. Principal Daniel Murfitt said the decile-two college could keep its fees and donations down thanks to the $300 to $450,000 brought in by international students. ''Our international students significantly subsidises the school.''

Napier Boys' High School headmaster Ross Brown said the $135 voluntary donation helped pay for maintaining the large school grounds. The money was also used on the school's four vans and producing the school magazine. A ''significant'' per cent of the parent body paid the donation each year. Mr Brown said the school could ''survive'' on state funding alone but it would not be able to offer the quality education that the community demanded.

Additional reporting by Seamus Boyer, Kay Blundell, Tracey Chatterton and Elle Hunt

Contact Jody O'Callaghan
Education reporter
Email: jody.o'callaghan@dompost.co.nz
Twitter: @miss_jodyo

- The Dominion Post

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