State funds don't cover costs, say principals

JOELLE DALLY AND FRANCESCA LEE
Last updated 05:00 04/02/2013

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Canterbury principals say they will take a softly-softly approach when they ask parents to pay up to hundreds of dollars per pupil in voluntary school donations this year.

Despite primary and secondary state education being nominally free, Kiwi parents contribute more than $100 million a year in voluntary fees, which schools use to top up shortfalls in Ministry of Education operational funding.

The collection, however, cannot be legally enforced.

Principals say it is such a struggle to keep up with 21st-century expectations and they have no choice but to turn to the community for help, given the funding the government provides.

Christchurch schools in particular are feeling the pinch as insurance costs skyrocket and the number of foreign fee-paying students remains low following the earthquakes.

Some North Island schools offer $100 meal vouchers, early payment discounts and threaten public shaming of those who do not pay to balance the books.

Canterbury schools have not resorted to such tactics, but one offers an annual raffle for parents who pay the donation.

Total operations grants received by the country's more than 2500 schools in 2012 were $1.2 billion, excluding tax.

A survey by The Press of 20 Canterbury primary and secondary schools yielded an overwhelming consensus that government funding was not enough to cover even the basics, and fell far short of paying for increasingly essential computer technology.

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

Canterbury-Westland Secondary Principals' Association chairman Neil Wilkinson said principals hated asking parents for donations but had little choice.

"No parent should have to pay to make a school donation. It's a basic state resource, like health. Sadly, the funding you get is never going to be enough."

At Cashmere High School, about 80 per cent of families paid the requested fee of $120 per pupil with a $240 family maximum.

Principal Mark Wilson said donations were a critical part of a state school's income, particularly to cover technology and support staff costs.

"I am aware that schools have employed a range of different strategies to try and get their donations. We just rely on the goodwill of the community."

Hornby High School encouraged parents to donate the $75 per pupil or $100 family maximum by highlighting in newsletters what it uses the money for.

"We want to do the encouraging as much as we can but without making it a major issue. It can create a division between school and families, which we don't want," principal Richard Edmundson said.

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At Riccarton High School, the donation has remained the same for the last three years, at $140 for the first pupil in the family, and $70 for additional pupils.

Principal Phil Holstein said the ministry operations funding was always spread thin while costs were increasing, especially for technology.

However, there were no incentives and the school did not follow up on non-donating families.

"We're well aware of the pressures on parents. I think families do see that by assisting us in this way it is helping their students and the whole school community," he said.

Hillmorton High School has increased its donation request this year to $100 per pupil, $135 for two, or $165 for three from each family.

Principal Ann Brokenshire said the donations were not a major focus, as only about 30 per cent of families contributed.

"It's dangerous territory when you judge a family on whether they will or will not pay the donation. Some people pay, a lot just can't afford it," she said.

John Laurenson, principal of Shirley Boys' High School, which charges $190 per pupil, said ministry funding was not enough.

"Consider for example ICT, literally a black hole into which buckets of money are poured," he said.

Kaiapoi High School principal Bruce Kearney said "at a push" his school could run without donations.

"But that would be a real bare-bones education, and that's not what we want to provide."

Avonside Girls' High School principal Sue Hume said it was increasingly hard to manage rising costs with current funding.

"We're in a digital world [and] parents expect opportunities."

Catholic Cathedral College principal Tony Shaw said some schools put pressure on parents to pay hefty donations, but he preferred to keep the amount "modest".

The decile 3 school asked for $75 per pupil with a $100 family maximum, with about a 90 per cent return rate.

"Our insurance bill doubled in the last year," Shaw said.

"The way things have escalated, it certainly has outstripped increases in [ministry] operations budget," he said.

At Bamford School, families who had donated could enter a raffle at the end of term 1.

"Last year we gave away a notebook laptop and the year before it was a $200 grocery voucher. Families quite enjoy that," principal Colin Hammond said.

Decile 10 Merrin School principal Lisa Dillon-Roberts said they had no choice but to rely on parents' generosity.

"The government's funding is absolutely not enough to cover day-to-day teaching and learning expenses. Every year is a juggle."

WATERS 'MUDDIED' OVER FEES

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 different.

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

- The Press

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