Controversial school funding program resurfaces in Vancouver

'Fuel Your School' parameters changed in September, allowing teachers to apply directly for funds from Chevron

A funding program once universally opposed by school trustees and district staff alike has now funnelled close to $30,000 into Vancouver classrooms.

Chevron’s Fuel Your School program changed its criteria and funding parameters in September, allowing teachers to directly apply for funding that supports learning in four specific areas: science, technology, engineering and math.

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Previously, Chevron had to approach trustees and district administrators for approval.

That change resulted in 23 projects being funded across 11 schools in Vancouver. Some of those initiatives included a new 3-D printer for John Oliver secondary, a butterfly lifecycle kit at Templeton secondary and tools to help grade 4 and 5 students learn about software coding at David Livingstone elementary.

More than 2,200 Vancouver students were reached as part of the program, and $28,000 in funding was distributed between September and November 2016.

Outside of Vancouver, 10 other Metro Vancouver school districts participated in the program in 2016, receiving $565,000. Just five districts took part before the program was opened up directly to teachers.

“This program is vastly popular with teachers across Metro Vancouver in each of the districts that are participating in the program, including Vancouver,” said Chevron spokesperson Adrien Byrne. “We’ve been approached by various levels of school board administrators across the region to participate in the program and we’ve had great feedback.”

The program works via a third-party charity called My Class Needs. Teachers apply to the project by way of outlining their class-specific needs each September.

According to Byrne, the feedback from teachers exceeded expectations.

“What we’ve seen is that the program is so popular with teachers that it was 70 per cent over-subscribed in 2016,” he said. “There is a huge backlog.”

Chevron first approached the VSB with its proposal in 2014. The proposed funding at that time would have been in the neighbourhood of $475,000, but trustees and staff rejected the deal.

Concerns were raised at the time over the optics of a fuel company sponsoring schools and classrooms. The VSB’s policy on corporate partnerships includes mandating that the district and schools maintain control over curriculum, and prevents students from being forced to view advertisements.

Former board chair Patti Bacchus told the Courier her principle concern at the time was a month-long promotion Chevron was touting at its gas stations that was connected to the program. That promotion saw $1 contributions made to My Class Needs for every 30 litres of gas purchased, up to a total of $565,000.

“The concern was they were using the schools to market gasoline sales,” said Bacchus, who’s now an education editor for the online news site Vancouver Observer. “Even if the corporate branding wasn’t in the classrooms, as kids were in the cars coming home from soccer, they would be filling up at Chevron [and] they would think ‘Chevron is supporting my school.’ That crosses over into an area the school board is quite sensitive about.”

That gas purchasing promotion was once again offered in October 2016, though Bacchus has backed off her outright refusal to endorse the program.

“I think it’s better now,” Bacchus said. “It’s fine if they want to make funds available and if they want to be supportive — if there are no strings attached. If an individual teacher thinks that this is a way to get the resources that aren’t being provided, I don’t have a problem with that, so long as kids aren’t exposed to corporate branding.”

Byrne maintains that Chevron is not circumventing any district rules by going directly to teachers, it’s simply expanding the program’s parameters and reach.

“Knowing that the school board in Vancouver declined that partnership in 2014 we decided to open it up and let teachers make their own decisions,” he said.

In fact, of all his dealings with districts across Metro Vancouver, Byrne characterized those in Vancouver as being the most challenging. Byrne said he approached superintendent Scott Robinson to again discuss the program in early 2016, but his offer went nowhere.

“We received a polite and brief decline to meet from his administrative assistant, citing the traditional position of the VSB trustees,” Byrne said.

The district’s refusal to endorse the Chevron program was briefly cited in the forensic audit report released in October 2016.

“VSB trustees made a number of decisions which have limited the VSB’s ability to increase revenue,” Peter Milburn’s report noted.

VSB spokesperson David Connop Price issued a statement to the Courier Jan. 13 indicating that “VSB has no corporate partnership with Chevron.”

“Any grant application submitted by a VSB teacher to any organization has to comply with VSB policy regarding public solicitation,” he said. “VSB is not aware of the My Class Needs Foundation placing any demands on teachers that breach VSB policy regarding public solicitation.”

@JohnKurucz

jkurucz@vancourier.com

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