Public Schools Cashing In on Alumni Giving

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For graduates at two prestigious New York City public schools, spring has sprung a season of giving.

Less than two weeks after alumni at Brooklyn Technical High School pledged to raise money for a $10 million endowment--believed to be the largest gift ever promised to a single U.S. public school--an alumni group at Bronx High School of Science disclosed plans for a similar multimillion-dollar fund.

"The dream is to have five or ten million dollars down the line," Milton Kopelman, the president of the board that oversees Bronx High School's endowment fund, said in an interview last week.

Endowment funds, a staple of most universities and independent schools, have become increasingly popular at public schools as a way to pay for extras that the schools couldn't otherwise afford. ("Local Fund-Raising Prompts Larger Questions About Equity," Oct 11, 1995.)

But the sheer size of the foundations planned for the two New York magnet schools shows just how sophisticated the practice has become, said Howie Schaffer, a communications consultant at the Washington-based Public Education Network, a nonprofit association that works to help schools in low-income areas.

"We're going to see more and more of these funds increasing all over the place," said Mr. Schaffer. "It's a natural reaction to a national trend" of inadequate public funding of education.

Some Left Behind

But Mr. Schaffer added that the growing popularity of endowment funds also raises questions of equity.

In New York City, as in most other communities, the public schools with parents and alumni who are willing and able to raise money usually have selective admissions policies or are located in affluent neighborhoods, said J.D. LaRock, a district spokesman.

In the city's wealthy Upper East Side, for example, approximately a dozen schools have their own foundations that raise anywhere from $80,000 to $150,000 a year to supplement regular operating budgets.

At both Brooklyn Technical High School and Bronx High School of Science, revenue from the planned endowments will likely be used to pay for scientific and technical equipment, increased computer access, professional development, and curriculum development, said officials at the schools. The funds will not pay for basic operating costs such as teacher salaries.

Though there are broad fund-raising groups that serve the more than 1 million students in the entire New York City district, most schools in the city's poorer neighborhoods don't have individual foundations looking after their needs.

"Sitting on a pot of 10 million dollars is a luxury most schools can't afford," Mr. Schaffer said.

Furthermore, while the foundations may help a particular school or district, he added, they do little to solve systemic budget problems.

"Usually endowments are looked to as panaceas in areas where there is fundamental dysfunction in the school system," he said. "How is the system as a whole going to be restructured if reform happens incrementally?"

Making a Statement

But the funding-equity issue in the nation's largest school district "cuts both ways," said Mr. LaRock.

Schools in well-to-do neighborhoods may gain financial support from parents and corporate donors, but "there's a lot of schools in low-income areas that receive [federal] Title I funding that the wealthier schools don't receive," Mr. LaRock said. "Across the district, the per-pupil expenditure is not wide-ranging."

And while not all schools will have a list of alumni as impressive as those of Brooklyn Technical High School and Bronx High School of Science, which require students to pass rigorous entrance exams, most are likely to have hidden resources that are useless if they go untapped, said Lee McCaskill, the principal of Brooklyn Technical High.

"Public schools produce more people who work in the private sector than anyone else," Mr. McCaskill said. "Schools need to reach out and find successful alumni and use those community resources."

But potential fund-raisers in middle- or low-income communities are often limited by time in addition to money, said Francesca Spinner, who coordinates an informal consortium of roughly 30 public school district foundations in Westchester County, N.Y.

Among those foundations that make up the consortium, those serving the more-affluent districts have been able to raise more money, Ms. Spinner said.

Brooklyn Technical alumnus Leonard Riggio, who is leading the school's fund-raising efforts, said the amount of money a foundation raises is not as important as the show of support demonstrated by its creation.

Even if a foundation raises only $10,000 a year, "it's good stuff because it makes people believe in public education," Mr. Riggio, the chairman and chief executive officer of the giant bookseller Barnes & Noble Inc., said in a recent interview. "It's a statement more than it's money.

"We're trying to leave a legacy that demonstrates the value of public education," Mr. Riggio added. "If you elevate one public school, you elevate them all."

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