The provincial government has cut funding in half for school councils to host speakers and information nights for parents, and is setting limits on how much can be spent on food and travel.
Parents Reaching Out (PRO) grants have dropped from $2.5 million to $1.25 million this school year, and instead of councils applying directly for the funds, amounts will be allocated directly to boards based on a formula. Schools can still receive up to $1,000 each.
The Toronto District School Board was given $133,405 — “almost a third of what we received in 2018-19 ($369,901). All funds must be spent and reported to the Ministry by Aug. 21, 2020,” wrote Trustee Shelley Laskin in a recent newsletter to parents.
Now, school boards are to work with parent advisory groups to determine how the money will be spent, with projects that are “required to demonstrate a commitment to respecting the role of parents in students’ educational experiences” including creating “a safe and welcoming school environment,” communicating with teachers, and curriculum information, the ministry has said.
“Our goal is to ensure we are modernizing the way we fund education in a responsible and businesslike manner to ensure that tax dollars are having the greatest impact in the classroom,” the PRO team wrote in response to parent groups inquiring about the changes.
Larger, regional projects that could receive up to $30,000 are no longer eligible.
A spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said “under the former Liberal government, up to 60 per cent of the funding went to speakers, airfare, and hospitality.”
“We believe that our changes will ensure the Parents Reaching Out grant will better utilize the funds to support projects that enable student learning and well-being, enhancing parent leadership skills, and promoting engagement of key partners in a students’ educational journey,” Alexandra Adamo said in an email.
But NDP Leader Andrea Horwath called the clawback to grants “unfortunate, because those are the very things that help, especially in communities” that are vulnerable.
“We want parents to be engaged in the education of their children and to cut those grants off is short-sighted, and I think the government is not really aware or not taking seriously the impact that can have,” Horwath said.
Late last year, then-education minister Lisa Thompson put the grants on hold. The funding was restored following an outcry from parents, some of whom had volunteered their time to create funding proposals.
Typically, councils submit proposals in the spring, hoping to hear back by the start of the school year so they can book events.
News of the grants comes late this year, said Karen Dancy, chair of the council at Holy Spirit Catholic Elementary in Brampton, who has worked on applications for such grants since 2013.
“A lot of these, you had to pre-book”— and sometimes a year in advance, she said, noting most speakers allow councils to cancel if for some reason the funds didn’t come through.
“We’ve always gotten the full amount, and always spent the full amount. We usually spend it on a speaker — we don’t spend it on frivolous things,” she said, adding she was unhappy with insinuations the money was wasted on food or travel.
She said the school has hosted an internet safety speaker, and has also run math-related events for families.
“Sometimes coffee is served, and speakers will factor travel into their fees,” said Dancy, noting that on occasion she has purchased doughnuts on her own “to make sure all money goes back to the kids.”
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While Dancy is not sure how things will work with boards allocating the funds, “at the end of the day, I’ve heard so many different speakers that are wonderful, because of this grant.”
The ministry says it now expects “school boards to support the delivery of these programs in a cost-effective manner,” and has capped spending on food and drink or advertising, at 10 per cent.