Budget & Finance

District Debates Fairness In Fund Raising

By Karla Scoon Reid — March 03, 2004 4 min read
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The era of bake sales ended years ago for parents living in Santa Monica and Malibu. But now that the fund-raising pie has grown, parents in those California coastal communities are at odds over how it should be shared.

Frustrated with state education cutbacks, parents devised highly successful money-making efforts that generate more than $4 million a year for schools in the 12,800-student Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

While the public’s financial support is heartening, Superintendent John E. Deasy faces an increasingly familiar and emotional dilemma there and elsewhere: gaping disparities in giving.

Some schools in his district raise close to $1 million a year, though others receive less than $30,000. In some cases, that means one school raises $34 per pupil while another brings in $1,100 a student.

To shift resources, Mr. Deasy is proposing that the district pool 15 percent of school donations, with certain exceptions, into an “equity fund” that would redistribute the money to all of the district’s 16 schools. The fund would generate about $400,000 a year, and, using a weighted per-student formula, direct more of those dollars to schools serving poor children and low-performing students.

Despite the area’s glamorous image and millionaires, the district has many needy families among its residents. About 28 percent of the district’s students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. “We’re trying to figure out how students can get the same educational experience irregardless of where they live,” Mr. Deasy said.

Calling the superintendent’s proposal a “gift tax,” however, some parents warn that the policy change could have a chilling effect on future school giving.

“People want to know that their money is going to their school,” said Sandy Thacker, a co-president of the Webster Elementary School PTA, which raised $300,000 last year for the 450-student Malibu school.

Based on community input, Mr. Deasy has revised the plan, which now includes a voluntary avenue for donating to the equity fund. The board will vote on the final policy this spring.

Fund- raising has helped preserve classroom materials and staff in light of recent financial challenges. Responding to state aid reductions, the Santa Monica- Malibu district has cut $4.5 million from its $70 million budget over the past three years.

“Part of this is the sad dilemma of the total abdication of the state’s responsibility to fund its schools properly,” Mr. Deasy said. “But to ignore it is equally problematic.”

Common Dilemma

Because of “dysfunctional” state systems of school finance, more districts like Santa Monica-Malibu are relying more heavily on private donations, said Tom Hutton, a staff lawyer with the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

School system officials have considered ways to redistribute donations, he said, but most of them back off, finding such policies too much of a political risk.

Since 1995, however, public schools in Portland, Ore., have shifted 33 percent of almost every dollar raised by individual schools to an equity fund. The policy generates roughly $400,000 annually.

The Portland Schools Foundation runs the fund to help the 53,000-student district boost minority student achievement.

Cynthia Guyer, the foundation’s executive director, admits parents still grumble about parting with their hard-earned fund-raising dollars, and that communities without such parent power remain envious.

Yet, she argues, few could doubt that the investment is starting to pay off: More Portland students in grades 3 and 5 are reading at grade level than five years ago.

In the Santa Monica-Malibu district, meanwhile, local e-mail networks capture passionate debates about the gift policy.

Robin Perrin, the father of two students attending schools in Malibu, said he’s been a little embarrassed about the selfish tone of some discussions. While he’s unfamiliar with the details of the gift plan, he said he’s supportive of the overall concept.

“What can be more unfair—being born without as much money and getting a poor education as a result of it,” he said.

Ms. Thacker, the PTA officer, said she backs the idea of boosting funding for equity, but contended that mandatory giving is not the solution. Instead, she suggested that all of the equity-fund donations be voluntary. She added that schools could form partnerships to improve fund-raising districtwide.

Principal Maureen Bradford bristles at the implication that her parents aren’t adept fund- raisers for Will Rogers Learning Community in Santa Monica.

With 61 percent of the school’s 700 students in preschool through 5th grade qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, Ms. Bradford said, many of her families aren’t able to support the school by opening their wallets or calling on well- connected Hollywood friends.

While the school raised a laudable $85,000 last year, she said the funds weren’t enough to hire a reading specialist that she lost to budget cuts.

It’s not a matter of marshaling community support, Ms. Bradford said: The corner grocery store is a committed Will Rogers partner. The store adopted a store for $300 a year and donates juice and cookies for meetings. “But it’s not Sony Music Corporation,” she said.

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