Back-to-school bills and unexpected fees dividing classes, says youth advocate

Back-to-school bills can be in the hundreds of dollars, prompting one youth advocate to warn that finances are creating a divide in the classroom.

B.C. education minister says province is trying to reduce ‘the proliferation of school fees'

Canadian parents are expected to spend an average of $883 on back-to-school supplies and clothes this year, according to a recent survey from Angus Reid. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

Back-to-school bills can be in the hundreds of dollars, prompting one youth advocate to warn that finances are creating a divide in the classroom. 

Fees for things like classroom supplies, agendas, extra-curricular activities, field trips and other items can be an unexpected burden on families, said Adrienne Montani, a coordinator of First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition.

"We end up with two-tiered education [between] those who can pay and those who can't," she said.

"It's creating a sense immediately of social exclusion for low-income families."

'We create shame'

Schools are not allowed to charge students for any materials or equipment that are required to complete a course leading to graduation, after a B.C. Supreme Court ruling in 2006.

They also must have financial hardship policies to allow students to participate who would otherwise be excluded.  

"There are loopholes, I would call them, that are big enough to drive a truck through," Montani said.

"And unfortunately, we create shame for families — they don't want to have to ask for something that other people aren't asking for," she said.

A B.C. school district that was given additional transportation funding and came out with a budget surplus was found to be charging parents $300 for bus service, said B.C.'s Minister of Education Rob Fleming. (Dave Gaudet/CBC)

'Very frustrating problem'

B.C.'s Minister of Education Rob Fleming said the issue of additional school fees is a problem the province is trying to address.

"Many districts have very modest fees — things for agendas, maybe a locker fund, those sorts of things. But others seem to have a whole menu of fees and I find it very frustrating," Fleming said. 

The school district in Vernon, which had been given additional transportation funds and came out with a budget surplus of $1 million, was recently found to be charging parents a $300 bus fee.

"We're reminding district leadership that this government's agenda writ large is to make life more affordable for the middle class," he said.

"We don't want to see the proliferation of school fees."

YNOTFORTOTS recently collected dozens of boxes of supplies for the beginning of the year and is working to distribute them throughout the community. Co-founder Lindsay Richter (far left) and co-founder Mohit Sodhi (right) are pictured with one of the teachers from the school that helped with the donation drive. (Submitted by Mohit Sodhi)

School supply donations

Mohit Sodhi, CEO and co-founder of the children's charity YNOTFORTOTS, said donations of supplies can help ease some of the financial burden for families heading back to school.

"We've actually been very surprised by the things that's been requested of us," he said, listing items from lice treatment kits to gym equipment to supplies for community kitchens.  

"There are things that you wouldn't image that there would be a need for."

Bev Elder, the executive director at a food bank on Vancouver Island, said this is the first year her organization has put a call out for school supplies.

"I have a whole table right now of school supplies," she said.

Food is still a huge concern though, she said, because donations to food banks usually decline during the summer holiday months.

"At this point, we're trying to purchase fresh produce like bananas, apples, oranges — anything a kid could throw into their backpack and just help them get through the rest of the day."

With files from The Early Edition and All Points West.

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