Money, money, money, not so funny in poor parents’ worldView(s):
The recent case of a girl allegedly stealing coconuts to meet a school payment has raised the issue of monies charged for various public school necessities. Charundi Panagoda reports
Maheshika Pubuduni, a 13-year-old schoolgirl from Horana with a whole life ahead of her, could have ended up in a juvenile offender’s facility over serious criminal charges. Her crime: stealing coconuts to pay off Rs. 800 charged by her school to paint the classroom. Maheshika is not alone in her dilemma. A Sunday Times investigation revealed that throughout the country, students and parents are burdened with numerous fees for public school necessities, regardless of the free education policy.
Students having to pay for “development” projects such as repainting classrooms, fixing desks and chairs, is hardly novel. Parents and teachers say that students in almost all government schools, whether they are prestigious institutions in Colombo or situated in rural outstations, eventually have to dish out cash for various school or classroom projects over the course of the academic year.
The Sunday Times interviews with a number of parents revealed that most of these fees were charged either for extracurricular activities such as concerts or sports meets, or for school maintenance, such as repairs. One disgruntled parent said his daughters’ school in Colombo sent “never-ending requests” for fees and despite financial difficulties, he had no choice but to pay otherwise his children would be singled out.
Another distressed parent said she had to pay Rs. 3,000 for concert costumes plus Rs. 1,000 per ticket for a Colombo school, adding that she even had to pay for alms givings conducted by the school. One mother whose sons attended a prestigious Colombo school said she paid, in addition to mandatory school fees, some Rs. 2,500 a year so the school could pay the utility bills.
Another parent from Kesbewa said he paid Rs. 500 to repaint his daughter’s classroom. A mother from Ratnapura said her daughter’s third-grade classroom charged Rs. 200 for children’s newspapers used for classroom activities. A mother of a fifth-grader said she pays an extra fee for additional scholarship exam practice classes held by the school. Other parents claimed they are even charged for the paper used to print exams.
These fees are decided and collected by the parents in charge of development committees for each classroom and are not necessarily imposed by the school administrators, though the classroom teacher may oversee the activities. How the money is managed and accounts are maintained depends on each committee. Some are transparent, but for some, parents never even see receipts. One parent in Wattala said he was charged Rs. 1,500 for repainting his son’s classroom without much of an explanation.
“If they charge Rs. 1, 500 from a 40-student classroom, and say about 30 students pay, that’s Rs. 45, 000. Do they need that amount of money to repaint a classroom?” he asked.The school development committees were created by circular 2008/35, which says if schools “acquire” money by means of donations, school gardens or so, that money should be allocated for “school development.” The “obscure” language in this circular paves the way for schools to collect money from students, Ceylon Teachers Union (CTU) Secretary Joseph Stalin said.
“There are no laws that say schools can collect additional fees from students,” he added. “The government should work towards stopping this practice.” On the other hand, the schools are compelled to collect fees from students because, as one principal said, the government doesn’t give “a single cent for school maintenance.” Schools receive government funds to buy stationery such as A4 papers or pencils and to buy instruments such as radios or televisions. The funds are categorised and can only be used for the stated purpose. Even if the provincial councils allocate money for each school for development, the amount is not sufficient for proper maintenance, school administrators claim. When school buildings are dilapidated or the electricity bills come in, the principal, teachers and parents have to look elsewhere for funds.
One principal from a small, rural school in the Polonnaruwa area said the government only provides his school Rs. 20,000 per year, which does not even scratch the surface of the expenses. The principal collected donations from his friends to build a Budu Madura costing Rs. 150,000 for the school. The paddy farmer parents are too poor to pay any maintenance fees, so when the school water pump broke they provided labour while kind-hearted donors paid for the equipment.
A principal added that if schools stop collecting money, some might have to stop extracurricular activities such as end-of-the-year concerts and sports meets.
“The extracurricular activities are a must and an important part of learning,” the principal said. “When the government doesn’t provide the money, we have to get it from somewhere.”
CTU Chairman Priyantha Fernando said limited funds have always been a pressing issue for schools. The situation has got worse as the cost of living rises, but not the money allocated for schools by provincial councils.
“For example, for a school with 4,000 students the electricity bill comes to about Rs. 800,000. But the government only gives about Rs. 150,000. Worst yet is when the allocated money is used unnecessarily by politicians. Recently, in the North-Central province, of the Rs. 150,000 allocated for education, about 30 percent was used for publicity, for calendars and framing pictures of ministers,” Mr. Fernando said.
The CTU said the government should establish a procedure so that schools receive a “reasonable amount of funds” for maintenance, at least for utility bills, taking the burden of running public schools off the shoulders of parents.
Education Minister says discussions on for stricter circular
Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena told the Sunday Times that “no school” could collect fees from students by “forcing” them with mandatory demands, especially from first grade students upon admission.
The Minister added that discussions would be held to introduce a new circular to limit and restrict the amount of money schools collected from students. “Because the situation differs by province, we have called provincial education ministers and Chief Ministers for a discussion on Thursday,” the Minister said.
Schools claiming the need to paint classrooms or repair furniture are just “excuses,” used to collect fees, the Minister said. When asked if the Ministry would address the issue of inadequate funds provided for school maintenance as raised by teacher unions, the Minister said the Ministry “does not function at the whims of unions.”"Once the provincial ministers discuss the issue, it will be referred to the special Parliamentary Education Consultation Committee,” the Minister added. “The Committee consists of professors and academics who care about student welfare, they will make policy decisions if necessary. The people’s representatives will decide.”
Did Maheshika have a problem or was she a victim?
Media reports initially claimed that 13-year-old B.D. Maheshika Pubuduni was compelled to steal coconuts to pay the Rs. 800 imposed by her school for repainting her classroom. However, Maheshika’s mother, A.K. Chandralatha told the Sunday Times that the theft and the school fee were unrelated.
According to Mrs. Chandralatha, Maheshika had only picked up some fallen coconuts on the land of a neighbour who had decided to lodge a formal complaint with the police leading to the arrest.
Conflicting accounts of the case have since emerged. A former teacher of Maheshika at Horana Sri Medankara Maha Vidyalaya told the Sunday Times that the girl has a history of stealing things– at school she would steal pencils or erasers and around town she was known to climb trees and pluck coconuts.
Maheshika comes from a poverty-ridden family. Her father is a quarry worker who supports his wife and five children, three of them still in school. When Maheshika didn’t have proper shoes or bags for school, her teachers had to buy them for her, sometimes with their own money.
Mrs. Chandralatha obtained a letter from the Grama Sevaka certifying the family’s low-income status and was exempted from paying mandatory school fees. The problem, she said, was that the parents who were collecting money for the painting project were not aware of their financial predicament, and kept asking Maheshika for money much to her distress.
The root of the case that grabbed the attention of politicians and even a special Presidential inquiry was the family’s abject poverty, Don Roshan Dehiwela, one of the lawyers who appeared for Maheshika pro bono, said.
Regardless of the cause, even more shocking was how the police and the Horana Magistrate handled the case. Justice Ministry Secretary Kamalini De Silva told reporters that proper legal procedure was not followed as the case should have been referred to the Mediation Board because the accused was a minor under the Children and Young Person’s Ordinance and the case productions were worth Rs. 5,000 or less. Instead, the police produced Maheshika before the Acting Horana Magistrate who imposed a bail bond of Rs. 50, 000. Following public outcry, the complainant withdrew the charges dismissing the case.
Human Rights Lawyer Kalyananda Thiranagama said juvenile justice procedures are “violated quite often” by police or by courts despite the fact that lawyers, Magistrates and police “are expected to know the laws that have been around for about 70 years.”
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