Families & the Community

Parents Buy In to Paying For the Basics

By Michelle Galley — February 12, 2003 6 min read

Forget buying new band uniforms or paying for the French club’s trip to Paris. Now, with the sagging economy, increasing numbers of parents are being asked to raise money for the necessities of public schooling: desks, teachers’ salaries, and building improvements.

And to meet those demands, some parents are forming foundations to pay for the music programs, guidance counselors, art instructors, and other programs and personnel that their schools can’t afford.

“Schools have always looked to parents to raise funds,” said Shirley Igo, the president of the National PTA. While the money once was for stage curtains and air conditioners, she added, these days “schools are asking for more sophisticated equipment in their science labs.”

The turn of events is largely the result of school district budgets so tight that programs are being cut. “It is very definitely tied to increased needs for the schools and a lack of public funding for schools,” Ms. Igo said.

Critics, however, warn that parents’ coming to the rescue could be a bad solution, especially when state revenues are declining. Outside streams of money, they say, can create an unfair system in which one school, with more affluent or activist parents, gets more than others in a district. What’s more, using fund-raising to pay for schools’ operating expenses can prove risky in the long run, some experts point out.

“Education is supposed to be the great equalizer,” said Leslie Getzinger, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers. “Parents who can afford to donate, volunteer, or attend a fund-raising event tip the scales, and lower-income children are left in the lurch.”

Some districts have outlawed, or at least limited, what they will accept from parents and other private sources.

Among them is Montgomery County, Md., a 139,000-student district outside Washington whose growing poor population is gradually transforming the largely affluent and middle-class community. Controversy erupted after parents from a prosperous school raised money for some capital improvements, such as an inlaid tile floor and roofing shingles that fit in architecturally with houses in the neighborhood.

“There were people in the community who believed that under no circumstances should the district accept private funds, and others said that in affluent communities, they should do whatever they want,” said Patricia O’Neill, the president of the Montgomery County school board.

The sense of the community, Ms. O’Neill said, was that providing adequate facilities is the responsibility of government, not parents.

The school board had already taken steps to prevent some forms of what it deemed inappropriate giving. In 1989, it approved a policy prohibiting outside groups from paying teachers’ salaries.

Hoping to ensure there would be no repetition of the more recent controversy, the board adopted a set of guidelines this past fall outlining what schools can and cannot accept from parents and other members of the public.

For example, stadium lighting and landscaping, with board approval, can be paid for with funds that do not come from the district. A new gymnasium, on the other hand, cannot, unless it is available to the community at large.

‘What Happens Tomorrow?’

Raising money is one of the most direct strategies parents can use to improve their children’s education, argues Howie Schaffer, the managing editor for the Public Education Network, a Washington-based association of local education funds.

When parents see that something is lacking in their child’s school, he said, their response is, “My child is suffering, and I’m going to take matters into my own hands.”

In doing so, he said, parents use their contacts and relationships to effect the kinds of changes they know they will see in their lifetimes. “Giving money is a strategy that gets immediate results,” Mr. Schaffer said.

But sustaining such efforts can be an even bigger challenge than raising the money in the first place.

“How often can a school come back to parents and ask them to raise multiple thousands of dollars?” the PTA’s Ms. Igo said. “If they can’t raise the money for the art teacher the next year, what happens?”

Sustainability is a huge hurdle, Mr. Schaffer acknowledged. “It is easier to create a change that happens now and for today,” he said, “but what happens tomorrow and for tomorrow’s children?”

That’s exactly what an active group of parents in Scotts Valley, Calif., thought when it launched a communitywide fund-raising campaign in December.

When Stephen Fiss, the superintendent of the 3,500-student school system, announced that the district was facing a $300,000 shortfall in its $16 million budget for this school year, parents, teachers, and community members feared that positions would be cut, class sizes would grow, and programs like art and music would be eliminated.

The district had to cut $100,000 from instructional supplies, which includes such basics as cleaning supplies, paper, pens, and crayons, Mr. Fiss said.

After Gov. Gray Davis of California proposed cutting more than $5 billion from the state education budget, Scotts Valley officials realized an even greater financial crisis loomed next year.

Some parents brought reams of paper to individual schools, and others decided to band together to help the district as a whole.

“The only alternative was to look at how to get an ongoing source of funds,” said Marshall Wolf, one of the fund-raising organizers. “We needed to relieve our current problems and address future problems as well,” he said.

The group decided to form a foundation for the district, called the 4 Schools Fund, and sent out nearly 7,000 letters soliciting donations from every family and business in the small community near Santa Cruz. In six weeks, the group raised close to $30,000.

But their goal is much higher: to raise $1 million so they can set up an endowment, the interest from which would help sustain the district in the future.

Searching for Equity

Some parents are forming foundations to sustain their efforts, said Mr. Schaffer, because such groups act as full-time fund-raisers and watchdogs for how money is spent.

In Portland, Ore., the Portland Schools Foundation acts as an equalizer, said Lew Frederick, a spokesman for the 54,000-student district.

If outside groups raise more than $5,000 for teacher salaries, he said, they must send one-third of it to the foundation, which subsidizes projects at schools in low-income neighborhoods. “That was done in an effort to try to get some equity,” Mr. Frederick said.

Sometimes, though, a single fund is insufficient for an entire district. In the 25,000-student Madison, Wis., district, organizers are attempting to set up a separate fund for each of the district’s 47 schools.

The individual funds would be run through the existing Foundation for Madison’s Schools.

“I realized that there are people who are terribly connected to one school,” said Jodi Sweeney, the president of the foundation, which has an endowment of $350,000.

For example, a community member closely connected to a local elementary school willed $37,000 to it. The money that came to the school upon her death became the pilot for the new fund-raising program. Now, a year later, that school, Shorewood Elementary, has a $57,000 endowment, according to Ms. Sweeney.

A school needs to raise at least $10,000 to establish its own endowment, Ms. Sweeney said. An endowment of that size would generate about $500 a year for a school, she said, and a group closely connected with each school—including the principal and the president of the parent organization—would determine how the income was spent.

The foundation tries to steer away from financing items “that should be paid for by taxes,” Ms. Sweeney added.

For the 10 poorest schools in Madison, John Taylor, a local philanthropist, issued “challenge grants” of $5,000 each.

If one of those schools raises $5,000 on its own, he has pledged to match that amount, thereby making the school eligible to starts its own endowment, Ms. Sweeney said. In the six months since Mr. Taylor issued the challenge, four schools have succeeded.

Still, even foundations require parents to carry the burden of underwriting the public school system. “We don’t believe that it is the parents’ responsibility,” said Ms. Igo of the PTA. That, she added, should be left up to the federal and state governments.

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