Parent councils are taking it upon themselves to bridge the fundraising gap between the city's schools, forming partnerships between have and have-not communities.
These grassroots partnerships have emerged in the absence of legislation or school board policies that address the issue effectively. They have helped create gardens and outfit sports teams at schools that would otherwise go without, and have helped to build nascent ties between school communities a few kilometres and multiple income brackets apart.
But they also fall short of addressing the gulf in fundraising potential between schools within the Toronto District School Board.
A Globe and Mail analysis of fundraising data found that some elementary schools raise 300 times more money than others, even when need-based grants are taken into account. It's an issue that is a source of concern to advocates of equity and fairness in public education, but one that is difficult to control through guidelines and legislation.
Parents at Jackman Avenue Junior Public School, situated in an affluent neighbourhood in the city's east end, are one of the groups who have made an effort to level the fundraising playing field. The school council raises more than $100,000 each year for classroom smart boards, iPads for kindergartners and enrichment programs for their kids.
But they also set aside close to $2,000 last year for Blake Street Public School, where the money went toward helping create a food garden.
"We've got a lot of money, we've got a lot of engagement, so it's great that we can do this," said Maria Saras-Voutsinas, a parent council member at Jackman.
"For us it's just the next step, a logical step, because we do have so much," said Michelle Hunt, co-chair of the parent council.
Partnerships such as Jackman and Blake's are relatively rare – the TDSB doesn't have exact numbers, but it appears only a handful of the wealthiest schools share a small portion of their funds.
Some jurisdictions, such as Portland, Ore., pool the money schools raise. (One-third of the money over $10,000 [U.S.] is pooled and shared between schools.) The common refrain in most Canadian cities, including Toronto, is that pooling won't work here because there is just too much need.
"Almost every school in the system has needs that can't be filled with government funds and everyone's trying to fill that gap," said Marilyn Field, executive director of Education Matters, a charity associated with the Calgary Board of Education.
Parents are so eager to bolster their local school coffers that even if pooling regulations were introduced, they would likely find a way around them by creating their own not-for-profits or charitable arms of the parent councils, according to at least one economist.
Some critics argue that the fundraising dollars parents pour into schools allow governments to underfund education. In a 2012 survey of New York City schools, The New York Times found that fundraising was paying for basic classroom supplies, including pencils and toilet paper.
In an effort to prevent fundraising dollars from going toward learning essentials, the Ontario government introduced new guidelines in 2012 that prevent schools from spending that money on items that are publicly funded, such as classrooms supplies and capital projects. But there are loopholes and parent councils are good at finding ways to pour extra money into their school.
While the guidelines prevent parents from adding square footage to a school, they can renovate the existing building, retrofit an auditorium or add a new sound system, for example, said Annie Kidder, executive director for advocacy group People for Education. And there is a great deal of ambiguity as to which classroom supplies are essential enough to be subject to fundraising restrictions.
"There are so many grey areas," Ms. Kidder said.
Jackman shares a portion of its fundraising money, usually from one or two drives. Parents are told that all proceeds from a cookie dough and Jackman gear campaign just before the holiday season will go to a neighbourhood school, usually to top up an existing fundraising effort. The practice, initiated by the parent council, has been going for about a decade. The parent council approaches the area superintendent, who determines where to donate the funds. Jackman's school council raised as much as $4,000 (Canadian) for a needier school in 2011-12.
John Ross Robertson Junior Public School, situated around Avenue Road and Lawrence Avenue West, raised just more than $500 a student in 2012-13, one of the highest amounts among elementary schools in the city, according to The Globe's analysis. But Sue Fisher, co-chair of the parent council, said the school also looks to support another school in a less privileged area. Money raised through monthly spirit days sometimes goes to Lord Dufferin Junior and Senior Public School at Parliament Street and Gerrard Street East, a school that ranks near the bottom of the TDSB's learning opportunities index, which looks at household income, parental education and the proportion of single-parent households.
"We're just very fortunate, and we want to respond to a need where there is one," Ms. Fisher said.
Arwen Hunter, former chair and now a parent council member at David Hornell Junior School, which is located in Mimico and has a large immigrant population, said the donations her school has received brought "tears to my eyes." A couple of years ago, Ms. Hunter's school received a donation of outdoor clothing from Lambton-Kingsway Junior Middle School, and more than $1,000 from nearby Sunnylea Junior School that it put toward classroom technology. And last year, the school received more than $1,000 in books from Sir Adam Beck Junior School.
"I think it's an amazingly generous thing to give up what could go to your children and give it to other children," said Ms. Hunter, who has three children attending David Hornell. "It makes me very emotional and grateful and proud to live where I live and to be part of the community that I'm in. There's usually such a divide between the haves and have-nots, and for the 'haves' to be willing to sort of break down the divide and do what they can to help a school like mine, is incredible."
Kiki Karailiadis, the principal at Blake, said she welcomed parent involvement at the school. "The fact is, students are better off when we all work together," she said.
Lord Dufferin declined to speak with The Globe about the funds they have received.
The TDSB, Canada's largest school board, provides special grants to schools in high-needs communities to help compensate for the differences. It's not nearly enough, though, to catch up with the hundreds of thousands of dollars schools that the city's richest neighbourhoods raise.
The data analyzed by The Globe took into account all sources of funding outside of the education dollars provided by the Ontario government, including parent council fundraising, student fees and field trips. The overall average raised by Toronto public schools was $149.53 a student in the 2012-13 academic year, which included extra TDSB funding for some schools in low-income areas, The Globe found.
Jackman is among the top fundraisers in the Globe's analysis, raising about $340 per student. Ms. Hunt said the council pulls in about $44,000 in the spring fair and another $10,000 for pizza lunches. She said parents feel the need to fundraise to enrich their children's education, but the partnering project is a valuable lesson in how to help address the disparity between have and have-not schools.
"It is educating the parents that this is an important part of our school's philosophy," Ms. Hunt said. "And it's important to the kids to give back, to see that we're giving back, and to understand that we have so much."