No such thing as a free lunch hour –

Fall River parents rebel against $200 fee
By CHRIS LAMBIE Staff Reporter
Sat. Oct 13 – 4:59 AM

Some parents with children at a Fall River school are refusing to pay for a lunch-hour child-care program, arguing the $200 annual fee doesn’t reflect the cost of providing the service.

The board asks about 220 students at Ash Lee Jefferson Elementary School to pay the fee because they live less than 2.4 kilometres from the school or they come from outside the facility’s catchment area.

“We consider it fundamentally wrong for anybody to pay a school fee to have their child in a lunch-hour program,” said Debbie Williams, who has a nine-year-old daughter at the school.

Some parents have been told the Halifax regional school board will use a collection agency to recoup the fees.

The board sent a letter home with students last month warning that parents who don’t register their kids with the program will be called to come and pick up their child. But so far that hasn’t happened.

“We’re making a stand,” said Ms. Williams, who has refused to pay the fee.

About 400 children at Ash Lee Jefferson are exempt from the fee because they take buses to school.

Extra fees run counter to the principle of universal, taxpayer-funded public education, said Percy Paris, New Democrat MLA for Waverley-Fall River-Beaver Bank.

“School boards must stop downloading extra fees onto parents,” Mr. Paris said.

Parents of French immersion students are especially upset about the $200 fee, he said, arguing it discriminates against them because they want to educate their kids in French.

“In Waverley-Fall River-Beaver Bank, only one elementary school offers French immersion,” Mr. Paris said. “Families who wish to enrol in French immersion have no choice on which school their children will attend.”

Peggy Aikenhead, who has a son in Grade 4 at Ash Lee Jefferson, said there’s no way he can walk home, eat lunch and walk back to school in less than an hour. Instead of paying the fee, she’s encouraging other parents to stop writing cheques to the board’s Excel child-care program.

“There’s power in numbers,” Ms. Aikenhead said. “I think everybody that does not believe in this should not have to pay.”

Mary Anne Carew isn’t paying for her nine-year-old daughter to eat lunch at the school.

“It’s not the issue of the money, it’s the principle,” she said.

NDP staffers calculated Friday that if all 220 students paid the fee, the board would realize a profit of $16,960 after the supervisors were paid.

“It’s a good way of making money,” Ms. Williams said.

Profits go into the school board’s general coffers.

But the board said the NDP’s numbers are wrong and that it only profits by about $3,044, not counting any overhead costs including lights, heat, janitors and general wear and tear.

“It’s very easy to cherry-pick one school overall and suggest that things are out of whack,” said Doug Hadley, a board spokesman.

Mr. Hadley said the lunch-hour child-care fee amounts to about $1 a day.

“A dollar a day to have a child minded for an hour is much cheaper than what it would be if someone was going to an external provider for lunch,” he said. “So we feel that $1 is a reasonable fee.”

There are 7,800 students paying the $200 fee across the entire school board.

“While it might seem like we’re making money in some schools, in other schools we would be losing money,” Mr. Hadley said.

The parents of about 20 children at Ash Lee Jefferson have refused to pay, he said. “In a case where parents have issues with paying, we try to work with the parents, but we haven’t, in the past, been putting parents out on the street.”

Mr. Hadley defended using a collection agency to get parents to pay.

“If somebody’s paying to have their child stay for lunch and then the person next to them is not, do we not owe it to the person who is paying to do everything we can to ensure that everyone pays the same amount?” Mr. Hadley asked.


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