The photo shows a bunch of plastic takeout containers, most with the logo of a small local restaurant chain.

The picture, in a tweet sent out November 27 by the official account for CP Allen principal Stephanie Bird, thanked the restaurant for providing 115 free meals for school staff. The tweet ended with:

Check out Harvest on the Bedford Highway. Thank you!

Tweet thanking a restaurant called Harvest for donating meals to feed teachers at CP Allen High School

Those last two sentences bothered me. They took the tweet out of the realm of  a simple thank you and into promotion. And promotion of any business, local or not, it seemed to me, was not something a school should do.

On Twitter, I wrote:

Schools should not be providing advertising for businesses. There must be a policy about this.

Well, it turns out there isn’t.

Asked about what policies govern informal commercial relationships between businesses and schools, Halifax Regional Centre for Education spokesperson Doug Hadley said in an email:

Our schools, teachers, staff, students and their families are a big part of their local communities; it’s not uncommon for a community member or local business to do something nice for the staff/students at their local school and the school to thank them.

As for our policies, while carrying out their duties, all HRCE employees are responsible for acting professionally in a manner that promotes public confidence and trust. This extends to all written, verbal and electronic communication, including the use of social media.

Hadley sent links to the provincial Conflict of Interest Act and Conflict of Interest Policy, but neither really covers this type of interaction. The closest the policy comes is this:

Employees must carefully consider the implications of accepting gifts, hospitality and other benefits. Citizens and corporations will occasionally express their appreciation for the efforts of a public servant by offering gifts, hospitality or benefits. These gestures are usually modest and offered without expectation or in return for special consideration. On the other hand, a citizen or a corporation might offer a gift, hospitality, or benefit that seems disproportionate or lavish or for which there could appear to be an implicit or explicit expectation of special consideration, (e.g. a service that exceeds what’s typically available through a government program).

I think we could all agree that school staff accepting lunch doesn’t fall into the category of “disproportionate” or “lavish” gifts.

As for the Halifax Regional Centre for Education itself, it has policies (which Hadley shared) on purchasing and on HRCE staff having secondary employment. But none of that covers what’s appropriate when it comes to thanking — or promoting — businesses online or elsewhere.

Headshot of bald man with goatee.
Alex Khasnabish. Photo contributed

Mount Saint Vincent University Sociology and Anthropology professor Alex Khasnabish said in an interview that, taken in isolation, one tweet thanking — or even promoting — a local business may be no big deal. “We can celebrate any individual act of kindness for sure,” he said. But, he added, “Why was it lunch for the teachers? Why should the teachers be fed by a private corporation? Why was it necessary for the principal to go so far out of their way to signal this on their Twitter feed, which clearly uses their institutional profile to support and promote it? What you’re doing is connecting those interests and profit-making to the vocation of teaching, to the profile of the school and to the public social capital that these places supposedly have.”

For Khasnabish, the issue isn’t a thank you for lunch. It’s the “insidious” way in which corporate and educational interests have become enmeshed, largely because of school underfunding.

“What we miss in the celebration of the generosity of the company is that this only needs to happen because our public institutions are systematically underfunded and threadbare,” he said.

I was interested in seeing some of the responses on Twitter to my complaint about it being inappropriate for schools to be promoting businesses, because some of them raised questions worth considering.

“Rick” wrote: “It look [sic] like real food and it’s not McDonald’s. give them a break”

“maureen ross” pointed to other good works from the company, asking if I’d seen “who else they delivered to yesterday.” (I had not.)

“Jade” wrote: “Canadian schools are LOADED with advertising. They usually have long-term deals with Coke or Pepsi among others. Often sports are heavily funded by corporate interests and this comes with advertising. Be thankful this is a local business at least.”

And, my favourite, the tweet from the Stillwell account, which patiently explained to me that “Local businesses donate to schools all the time, sponsor sports teams historically. This supports the school  and raises awareness for small biz. I see it as community exchange rather than nefarious targeted advertizing [sic], personally.”

So, if there are no particular rules governing how schools or school staff thank companies for their donations or support, does it make a difference what kinds of companies are involved? Or even why they are doing it?

Does the kind of company matter?

How about companies that clearcut? Is that OK? Earlier this fall, several schools and school staff members tweeted thank yous to WestFor, grateful to the forestry company for providing materials and/or labour to build outdoor classrooms. Some of these tweets were shared by HRCE.

Outdoor classroom with a sign thanking Westfor

At the time, I wrote for the Examiner:

WestFor has a page on its website devoted to its work building outdoor classrooms. It’s right in there alongside pieces on how more of the forest dies off naturally than is harvested by WestFor in any given year, and shows a smiling crew member in a “Nova Scotia needs forestry” t-shirt.

In other words, this is corporate propaganda, and schools should not be participating in it. You want an outdoor classroom? Great. I am sure there must be ways to make it happen without shilling for corporate entities. You want to be a good corporate citizen? Great. Help build outdoor classrooms without using them as a way to greenwash your image.

Khasnabish said this case is a little more, er, clear-cut: “The fossil fuel industry, industries that are involved in clearcutting, these kinds of things — they’re simply so desperate to demonstrate their social conscience, their benevolence, that they actively look for opportunities to launder their reputation. I’m horrified that administrators in the [outdoor classroom] case couldn’t see that clearly… And that’s unfortunate… We often enter into these kinds of relationships with the best of intentions, and, I think, fail to do our due diligence.”

He added, “Let’s be real here. We live in a society absolutely awash in this kind of brand opportunism, where there’s no stone left unturned for the leveraging of influence and marketing. And the increasingly large holes in our public institutions are the ideal place for many of these corporations to go and sort of cultivate the seedbed, especially for future generations of customers.”

“I mean, it’s a really tough line,” Ben Sichel of Educators for Social Justice – Nova Scotia said in an interview. Sichel, who teaches at Prince Andrew High School, added. “My immediate reaction is that the business did a nice thing, and they wanted to say thank you… I would react a little bit differently if they had thanked McDonald’s or Irving Oil or ExxonMobil.”

But Khasnabish said the onus shouldn’t be on individual administrators and parents to assess the ethics and motivations of every company that wants to donate to a school. Speaking of the Harvest/CP Allen case, he said, “I don’t know anything about the working relations inside that company. I have no idea if they’re a good company, if they source their food ethically, what they’re trying to do. The point is that I shouldn’t really have to. You know, I shouldn’t, as a parent of a kid at that school or as a student at that school, have to make it part of my day to parse the kind of messaging I’m getting from my administrators about this particular event — which is kind of a nothing event, but isn’t because the principal bothered to tweet about it.”

He added, “Rather than having to navigate every potentially prickly relationship, it’s far easier to say, ‘Hey, you know what? This is a public institution. This is a public school.’ There are not so many of those institutions in our society that are avowedly and declaredly public in that way, that are supposedly free from those pressures and dynamics.”

Local businesses donate to schools all the time

Robert Bedard, a professor in the Faculty of Education at the Mount, said in an interview that taking a purist stance against any commercial involvement with public education is unrealistic. “It is so ubiquitous that I think it’s difficult to keep the commercial world out of schools very easily,” he said.

Headshot of man with white hair, in blazer and tie
Robert Berard. Photo:

At the same time, Berard said that we should not underestimate the impact of seemingly innocuous donations from companies, whether they be well-meaning mom-and-pops or larger players.

“Are you doing this simply and solely to share your appreciation for the work that teachers do? Or is this a way to earn social credit in the community?” Berard said. “If Tony’s Pizza is donating pizzas to the teachers for a month, well then, what that does is the public says, ‘Oh, well, you know, Tony’s not a bad guy, he’s donating those pizzas, supporting our teachers. Maybe next time we’re looking for a slice, we’ll go there.’… It is a way of promoting your business. Something of greater concern are those kinds of involvements of business where there’s actually a quid pro quo. We give you this material and in return you have to do something for us.”

“When schools are chronically underfunded and students and teachers don’t have the support they need, you can hardly blame individual teachers or individual schools for accepting donations,” Sichel said.

But donations don’t have to come to exhortations to patronize specific businesses. Shatford Memorial in Hubbards, for example, thanks “volunteers” for various activities, including building outdoor classrooms, without identifying anyone specifically.

“Communities have contributed to support schools beyond their taxes forever. I don’t think you can get rid of that, but I think that what schools need to do is is have some agency,” Berard said. “You have to be careful about what you’re doing and go in with your eyes open. What is the benefit to the school? What’s the benefit to the company? Are we comfortable with that?”

For Sichel, the bigger issue is not feel-good donations, but the way larger commercial enterprises have become embedded in schools. “Maybe it’s a little bit over the line to say go check out this business,” he said. “But commercialization and corporatization in schools is an issue in the broader sense. The first thing that came to mind for me was Google Classroom, and just how ubiquitous Google has become in the life of schools in our province. I use Google apps for education and Google Classroom quite frequently, and it’s kind of like no one really blinked about the fact that we’ve got this for-profit company, which is present in so much of our learning right now… And of course, Google runs by collecting people’s private information. And although there has been some addressing of those concerns, it’s still a little bit creepy.”

But the schools are full of ads already

Khasnabish said that not caring about the relationship between commercial interests and schools because schools are loaded with commercial messages already is “like saying why worry about the pandemic, because there are other diseases in the world.” (I did point out that a lot of people did say exactly this for awhile, but that hasn’t worked out so well.)

Berard said certain things may be nearly inescapable, but that doesn’t mean teachers can’t interrogate them. He gave YouTube as an example. “The benefits of being able to get some historical film footage, or a piece of music, or a play — it’s great. It’s a very effective teaching tool. But I think you have to be aware of what it costs. Why is someone putting this content up for you for nothing? They probably want something,” he said. “With the case of a YouTube video, maybe I can skip the ad in four seconds, but maybe I can’t. Then it becomes important to use that as a kind of teaching moment for students.”

You don’t have to believe there is anything nefarious about a business donating to a school, or to school staff, and getting a public thank you for it to still have some concerns about the lack of rules around informal commercial interests in schools.

Khasnabish said, “We are part of one of the richest, most technologically advanced, most resource-abundant societies that’s ever existed on this planet. And at the same time, we can live in the midst of that and say we can’t properly ventilate our classrooms in ageing buildings because there’s no money… And we’re constantly told these things about how there are no resources,” Khasnabish said. “And so in the midst of this, corporations sometimes step forward with the best of intentions. They like the school they went to, they care about their community, they want to help out. And I don’t want to crap all over that… Who would begrudge a business owner from advantage of an opportunity? But when every social inequality, when every unfilled pothole, when every broken-down bridge, school, hospital, whatever, becomes an opportunity for investment and profiteering — I think we should, as citizens, take a very deep breath.”

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Philip Moscovitch is a freelance writer, audio producer, fiction writer, and editor of Write Magazine.

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  1. Excellent nuanced article. Provokes a larger question: “why are our public institutions so poorly funded that corporations/businesses are needed to step in and fill the gap?” I think about hospitals who have to fundraise for essential equipment, which should be paid for by our tax dollars. Schools are particularly vulnerable because they are prone to being beholden to interest groups that provide “curriculum” – I remember campaigning against YNN wanting to supply TVs and computer equipment to NS schools. In return every school had to sign on to showing a 15 minute daily “news” broadcast. which also included advertising. Thankfully, we won. Big difference between this and small local businesses being good corporate citizens…but where is the dividing line?

  2. How about the cases where the private sector is providing curriculum? The milk propaganda our kids were instructed with was really something.

    1. I had forgotten the milk propaganda, which my (non-milk-drinking) kids had gotten too. I considered addressing the curriculum question in the story but it seemed like a separate issue and I was already running long.

  3. Great piece. So many people don’t think about the bigger picture when it comes to promotions in public institutions, which is at least partly a failing of our governments who have been keen to endorse such relationships for other public infrastructure (oval, MetroCentre, 4-pad arenas, etc …).

    What if down the road CPA puts out a tender for an in-school lunch program and that provider submits a bid? Other providers could easily point to that tweet as a conflict if interest if they were to win the tender.

  4. Google is great….because when business, unions and politicians lie and/or mislead we can use Google to find the truth. We can quickly fact check and see if a CEO or a PR flack for a business/charity/union is attempting to obfuscate/mislead the listener/viewer/reader.