Cash-strapped schools call in heavies to collect donations

Last updated 00:45 20/01/2008

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The education minister is appalled but schools say they are desperate for money. Catherine Woulfe reports.

Debt collectors are chasing parents for unpaid "voluntary" school donations, alarming Education Minister Chris Carter who says the move is illegal.

Baycorp says it has contacted parents from "a handful" of state schools to recoup the donations, and community law advisory group YouthLaw says it has received calls from parents who have chosen not to pay the donation and have been chased by debt collectors.

Carter, speaking from Madrid on Friday, said coercing parents to pay donations was illegal and "I would not tolerate any New Zealand school breaking the law. I would certainly intervene if parents approached me and I would urge them to do so... Parents are to email or telephone my office if a school has done that".

By law, every New Zealand child has the right to a free education from age five to 19. But state schools say they cannot survive on government funding and ask parents for an annual donation on top of compulsory fees for everything from art and cooking supplies, homework books, school camps, sports equipment and photocopying.

Debt collectors are sometimes used by schools to recoup those compulsory fees but until now, no one the Sunday Star-Times spoke to had heard of schools going after donations.

A Baycorp spokesman says its staff are chasing overdue cash for more than 100 schools. Most are private schools owed compulsory fees, but the company is also chasing parents from "a handful" of state schools for camp fees, uniforms, stationery bills and voluntary donations.

The spokesman says the company tells schools the parents are disputing the payment if it's related to the donation.

Baycorp has not collected any donations yet, but has recouped 35% of all school debts handed over in the past two years. Amounts range from $70 to $515 at state schools.

YouthLaw solicitor Harvena Hudson says parents were advised that they had a choice about paying donations.

YouthLaw has heard from students whose families have not paid the donation who have been banned from school balls or trips, or not given the leaving certificates needed for entry into university or other tertiary institutions.

Parents should ask for written clarification on whether what they're being asked to pay is a fee or donation, Hudson says. If unclear, they should make an appointment with the principal.

Secondary Principals' Association head Arthur Graves, principal of Greymouth High School, says he would never use a debt collector to chase school fees, but knows of others doing so.

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"It really does reflect the desperation that schools are facing in terms of funding. [They are] having to find ways to scramble together money just to hold the basics together.

"The whole story now, about it being a free education, is not quite correct I would be surprised now if there were any schools that weren't charging fees around curriculum subjects."

School Trustees Association head Ray Newport says fewer parents have been paying the donation in recent years. At some schools the percentage is as low as 20% and even at the highest-decile schools, many parents opt out.

Newport says schools will be forced to cut core programmes and support staff if government funding isn't stepped up soon.

Carter says that is "nonsense", as funding has been increased every year. Although state school funding rose to $5.6 billion last year, schools raised more than $500 million from community sources to stay afloat.

 

- © Fairfax NZ News

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