Redistribution of Wealth

On May 31, Emma Waverman tweeted this:

My friend is a Principal in a underserviced Toronto jr school. She needs $2000 to FEED her students for the rest of the year. Anyone?Tue May 31 19:27:45 via UberSocial

And I thought something like, “Holy shit, @2000?” I thought, “Holy shit, $2000?” because at our school summer fair we raised $1300. At the bake sale table. Never mind the barbeque and the silent auction and the bouncy castle and the games, we raised 65% of the money Emma’s friend needs to feed her school’s kids for a month, selling brownies and cupcakes for three hours.

It seemed a little ridiculous not to try to help. So I sent email to our School Council president and treasurer, and to the principal, asking if we could help. The response was overwhelmingly positive: the treasurer said we could give some money and also ask the other schools in our area to donate; the principal suggested setting up a donating jar at the Freezie Friday table; and in her typical no-bullshit style, the president of the school council dropped $500 of her own money on the table. Emails flew back and forth, working out the logistics, and this rainy morning I woke up to this tweet:

Thanks to @amyrhoda and her school’s parent council. The kids at my friend’s school have enough to eat for the rest of the school year. #wowTue Jun 07 03:34:36 via HootSuite

I’m not sure exactly what amount of money came from which source, but we did it.

But there’s a catch. Our next School Council meeting is on June 14, which means we did this without consulting the council. Now, our contribution was (as far as I know) only $500, and we came up with a plan to cover it if the council retroactively refuses to donate this money, so technically it’s fine. But I’m pretty sad that we have to even make a contingency plan. “In case of ungenerousness, break glass.”

The Ontario school funding formula is broken (thanks to Mike Harris); schools just don’t get the money they need. To make up the difference, families in some schools have stepped in with fundraising efforts. But a lot of schools don’t have access to the kind of fundraising expertise, connections, or cash that others do, creating a two-tier public education system where the rich get richer and the poor stay hungry. Some “have” school councils quietly contribute to “have not” schools, but despite repeated efforts on my part and the part of other parents, we have been unable to convince our school council to do the same.

I don’t think it’s because we’re fundamentally ungenerous. The fact is, we’re not a rich neighbourhood in the sense that Forest Hill and Rosedale are rich. Yes, we have a lot of money, but we work damn hard for it–we’re bankers and lawyers (and software developers), not idle heirs and socialites. So we do tend to hold on to our money. But I believe if we (the school council) only managed to frame the idea of giving properly, we could get the rest to agree to it.

I think funding something specific and finite, like a breakfast program for a particular school, would be simple and appealing enough to convince parents to part with a little bit of our money. It’s much more satisfying to contribute to something you can picture than something nebulous; that’s why the charity appeals on TV always feature one specific kid (or dog).

So I don’t honestly expect that we’ll be retroactively refused that meal program money, although we might (fairly enough) be questioned as to whether we intend to quietly and without consultation give away any more of our money. That will be a good time to say, “No, but let’s plan to give a specific amount to a particular need, so we can share the wealth in a structured manner.” Maybe this time they’ll go for it.

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