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Education Chat

Money Management: Handling Private Donations to Public Schools

Ronald Thorpe, vice president and director of education at Thirteen/WNET New York, discussed issues surrounding private donations made to public schools, including the use of donations as leverage, the responsibilities of school leaders before they accept monetary gifts, and the role of managing expectations.

Money Management: Handling Private Donations to Public Schools

Guest: Ronald Thorpe, vice president and director of education at Thirteen/WNET New York

Nov. 11, 2005


Lani Harac, Teacher Magazine (Moderator):
Hi, everyone, and thanks for joining us. I’m Lani Harac, the assistant editor at Teacher Magazine, and I’m pleased to welcome Ronald Thorpe, our guest for today’s chat about private donations to public schools. Mr. Thorpe is currently vice president and director of education at Thirteen/WNET New York. Prior to joining the world of public television, he spent more than a decade overseeing education initiatives at three philanthropic foundations and worked as a high school administrator in New England for 16 years.

As discussed in “Political Theater” in the November/December issue of Teacher, even the best-intentioned gifts can be difficult to manage. With experience as both fund-raiser and grantmaker, Mr. Thorpe can speak to the concerns on each side, including the need for school administrators to retain autonomy and donors’ desires to effect change.

We have a lot of questions already, so I’ll turn it over to our guest.


Question from Jon Goulden, Co-President, Portola Valley Schools Foundation:
Under what circumstances should a school/school board refuse to accept a directed gift?

Ronald Thorpe:
In times when resources are so scarce, it seems almost impossible to refuse a directed gift, but in fact it is something that has to be done. My feeling both as a grantmaker and as someone out there looking for grants is that it’s essential to keep your organization’s mission front and center. A potential donor might have a good idea for some new work, and it could well be something that your school or organization would love to do and SHOULD be doing, but that’s your call in the end. Money that takes you off your mission not only detracts from the work you need to be doing, but it also can put you on poor terms with the donor. Some people might be surprised to hear it, but most donors really appreciate hearing that an organization really knows what IT needs to be doing. That doesn’t mean that you put blinders on, but it does mean that you need to be very thoughtful in making your decision about taking the gift or not.

And by the way, this holds with Federal and state money, too. We have some very strong and compelling examples out there right now of schools and states declining NCLB funds because they come with strings that the school or state cannot honor. That takes a lot of courage -- and coalition building back home -- but sometimes it has to be done.


Question from Lisa Ross. Federal Policy Director, Pre-K Now:
Isn’t there an issue of private donations to schools being a problem because it disrupts school funding equalization plans put in place by the state in an effort to provide students equal education opportunities? I thought I read some time ago that there were court cases about this.

Ronald Thorpe:
I don’t know as much about this topic as I should, and I’m also certain that it changes from state to state, so anyone looking at this question must bone up on his or her own state policies. But it does come down to a fairly common argument: does the new money supplement existing funds or supplant it? In many, many cases I’ve been less than enthusiastic about raising special scholarship funds (for colleage students) because once that scholarship is declared to the college, there is a strong chance that the financial aid package will be adjusted leaving the bottom line the same. One can’t fault the colleges for this because they are trying to spread out limited funds as fairly as they can. But my thoughts go to the people on the fund-raising side. In terms of more general, school-based projects (let’s say a group wants to raise money to fund a theatre program, for example), I think I would want to get some written assurance from whatever level of authority is necessary (school board, for example) that the availability of the new funds will supplement rather than supplant. And if they can’t give that assurance, at least everyone knows up front what the situation is.

I’d recommend that folks contact people at the Westerly, RI school system. I helped them start a “foundation” some years ago, which is actually based at the Rhode Island Foundation (which is a Community Foundation for the State). Funds are raised from graduates/parents/others and placed into an endowment, the interest from which goes to fund certain projects. The supplement vs. supplant argument came up when this “foundation” was being created, and they probably have a good story to tell about how they resolved it.


Question from Rose Snyder,Teacher,Duval County Public Schools:
I have seen administrators try to use specified Federal funds to hire staff an all sorts of other things not intended by grant money. Why couldn’t school districts create an accounting process whereby funds could be used for what was intended by whatever designee and allow that source of funds to enhance what is there so the district can shift money elsewhere?

Ronald Thorpe:
Using funds for purposes other that what they are specified for can get a district into lots of trouble. The Feds can call for an audit, but districts also have their own auditors, many of whom have been told to start doing a much better job. (e.g. there is a lot of this going on in the Long Island, NY, schools these days.) I’m sure school districts already have an accounting process to make this happen, but they are doing whatever they can to help balance their budgets. But using money in areas where it shouldn’t be used will cause no end of trouble, and once news of such behavior hits the press, the chances for future funds -- whether private or public -- will be dramatically reduced.


Question from Jeffrey Lawther, Teacher, Forsythe Middle, Ann Arbor ,MI:
We are no longer selling sugar soda(pop) to students. What is a good alterative to replace this income?

Ronald Thorpe:
This reminds me of one of the best bumper stickers I’ve ever seen. It went something like: It’ll be a great country when schools have the money they need and the Pentagon has to hold bake sales. I think all of the “sales” ideas that are based in schools have limited value -- although they are hard to suppress because they are usually driven by very committed parents and teachers -- sometimes even students -- who really want to DO SOMETHING. I think it’s probably better to make some arrangements with local merchants whereby a certain percentage of sales on certain items goes into the “Chamber of Commerce Fund for Our Public Schools” or something like that. I also like the idea I mentioned earlier regarding what happened in Westerly, RI. Private schools all track their graduates assiduously for lots of reasons, not the least of which is to maintain a healthy alumni fund to support the school. Private colleges do the same, and public colleges and universities do also. It’s always bothered me that public school districts haven’t developed such an approach. I’m almost offended that my own public school -- Carlisle, PA -- doesn’t have a clue of where I am, what I’m doing, and whether I can help them -- and it doesn’t matter to them. Yet I get contacted by my college and graduate school all of the time. I think there are real lessons to be learned and opportunities to be created.


Question from David, Principal, Avondale Elementary:
Another related issue is how private donations affect equity within a school district. In many (especially mid-large size) districts, the schools serve very different populations in regard to the socioeconomic level of the students attending the various schools. When budget cuts are made, but parents in wealthier neighborhood schools donate LOTS of money, materials, playground equipment, and other resources (including teacher stipends) to their schools, while those in less wealthy areas cannot, the disparity between the schools grows within the district. At what point does the district step in, and how do they maintain equity in these situations, while at the same time not discouraging those community members who are willing to help the schools in various ways?

Ronald Thorpe:
This is an excellent question and gets to a part of this issue where different school districts can help each other come up with answers. In other words, I doubt there is ONE BEST ANSWER, but if I were a superintendent or school board member, I’d like to be looking at a variety of possibilities. An old friend of mine, John Deasy is superintendent of schools for Santa Monica-Malibu Unified, and he’s been facing into this very question for several years. I’m sure he doesn’t have the solution, but he’s got a lot of lessons learned.

I imagine Fairfax, County, VA is another place that faces into the same challenge.


Question from Donna Wells, Parent, Conejo Valley Unified School District:
How do you maintain equity among schools when each school is allowed to solicit funds independently?

How do you ensure funds are used appropriately and as intended by the donor?

How are the needs and priorities of a school established and approved prior to solicitation of funds?

Ronald Thorpe:
I’ve tried to touch on the equity issue earlier, so let me turn instead to the other questions, starting with the last one, which strikes me as really central -- and very smart! In most private schools and colleges -- and in almost all non-profit organizations, the chief executive officer (head of school, president, etc.) typically works with a team of people in establishing the strategic goals for the next year and beyond. When the cost of meeting these goals is outside what the annual operating budget can cover, a “development plan” is created, which builds the case for why the money is needed and where the prospects are. Most public schools aren’t really structured to work in this way -- having grown out of a very different history and tradition -- so the structure itself needs to be created. Starting small and focused is key. But a school district that wants to build this sort of capacity should look to the non-profit world, I think, to learn more about how it’s done.

One thing that happens too often in school environments -- at least the ones where I have worked -- is that they often are imbued with a “win-lose” mentality. If I wanted to do something for the history department, almost without exception others in the school -- the math department or the coaching staff or the music teacher -- assumed that they would be getting less. I don’t know how schools developed in this way, but it’s really unfortunate and causes many schools to miss out on opportunities. Building school culture takes years, so this is not something that can be turned around over night. But all of it comes down to having a process in place that establishes the needs and priorities.

Ensuring that funds are used for their intended purposes really comes down to the integrity and character of the people involved and also to how successful folks are at communicating clearly. Again, it comes down to priorities and school culture. I had a boss once who taught me that when I am thinking about how do manage something in my school, I should always ask myself: How would I like it if my decision and actions were to appear on the front page of tomorrow’s New York Times. It’s always been a handy guide to me.


Question from Steve Bailey, Parent:
Every year parents hear stories about teachers having to use money for all sorts of “extras” in the classroom. SUch as giving a child lunch money, extra pencils, paperr, not enough money for field trips etc. SO every year i give $100 to my childs teacher to help defray these costs. However this year the teacher said she couldn’t take the money since I don’t give it to all the teachers and would be unfair. I believe it is this “fairness” that keeps getting in the way of altruism. Is it more fair to let 5 students go hungry at lunch or to help pay for one and only 4 go hungry? I believe it is adminstratively impossilbe to balance the contributions that parents give to enhance their childs classroom. How do you think schools should treat these contributions to individual classrooms?

Ronald Thorpe:
I had a very distinguished professor in graduate school named Steve Bailey, and he asked me questions almost as hard as this one! Equity of opportunity must always be our primary concern, but schools are filled with inequities of all sorts -- some, sadly, by design, and others just by happenstance. Every child brings to his or her teacher different assets procured by parents and the circumstances at home. If Jane’s mother is from Pakistan and Jane knows a lot about Pakistan, that classroom has more assets when they study Pakistan by virtue of her presence.

But when it comes to giving money there is a different set of concerns and cautions. First of all, people -- of even the best intentions -- need to avoid even the appearance of setting up a privileged situation for their child by giving extra support for their child’s teacher. It’s in everyone’s best interests to avoid that. But the challenge is finding away to harness the spirit of those good intentions and making sure that what they yield does have the most equitable impact. On the other side of the equations, school administrators who simply say “no” without trying to brainstorm a solution toward greater equity really aren’t providing great leadership either. It’s probably possible to get the urge and desire to give as a catalyst for a broader conversation that includes the largest number of people.


Question from Miles Myers, Senior Researcher, ISCA, Los Angeles:
Could you give me a citation on a scholarly study of this issue? The issues seem to be civil rights (equal distributuion vs right of public to fund their local school), school board and management authority (parental contributions to a school as parental decisions vs board’s authority over scvhool\public funds). Are there other issues involved?

Ronald Thorpe:
I wish I had turned to these wonderful questions earlier. If I had, I probably could have done some research to help with this answer. But, no, I don’t have any citations to offer. There are legal issues and moral issues, issues of equity and issues of control. There are also, undoubtedly, many stories of abuse -- which typically and sadly usually give rise to rules, policies, and sometimes laws -- and there are success stories, too.

Rather than look to precedent, however, we might move the issue forward by asking what it is that we’d most like to do and then finding the way to do it.

There are mountainous legal cases in New York State, New Jersey, Connecticut and elsewhere about school finance. They sometimes appear insurmountable, but I’m grateful for the good people who work on them because nothing is probably more important for our children and our country’s future. But for most of us, these issues give us severe vertigo because they are so far beyond us. Still, when I encounter such feelings, I usually pull my context in as close as I need to in order to achieve a human scale -- or at least one that I can deal with -- and work from there. And I try to find other like-minded friends and colleagues who want to help.


Question from Ray Phelps North Hardin High School Radcliff, Ky.:
Would you agree or disagree and why? A donator has every right to expect the money donated to be used for what they feel is important either academically or extracurricularlly, if there are no other strings attached. If there is a or there seems to be some political motive then the donation should be highly scrutinized.

Ronald Thorpe:
Yes, I agree. Donors have the right to put their money behind their own ideas. (When this isn’t the case, we call it something else: taxation!) The real burden is on the recipient or would-be recipient who must either agree with the conditions or not. And if it’s the latter, then the obligation is to learn how to so “no” with grace.


Question from Nancy Early,Teacher Support Specialist, Columbus Educational Services, Hawaii:
The situation seems to become a problem when the money is co-mingled with school funds. Should the private donated money be set up through a bank or some other financial institution outside the school and accessed only by the means indicated by the donor? Keep all private donated funds private, totally outside the school so that the donor’s wishes can be honored just as stated. No personal nor professional opinions can effect the stipulations set forward by the donor, no matter how “honorable” the intention(s).The sole method of distribution is strictly upheld according to the donor’s wishes. Afterall, it is (and was) their private money so their wishes should be upheld no matter how it may appear to others. Also, if the donor’s wishes are ignored or altered, the next potential donor may think twice and not give at all. I wouldn’t donate anything if I thought it would be restricted or changed in any way from my intentions as the donor. It’s my priviledge as a donor to indicate it’s recipient and direction of distribution.

Ronald Thorpe:
This is well stated. Thank you. One place to consider “placing” the private money is in your local community foundation which is set up to manage such things. For those of you who don’t know about community foundations or wonder if there is one in your area, it will be worth your while to do a little research. Community foundations -- there are more than 600 across the country -- are distinguished in the foundation world because rather than holding money from a single donor or family or corporation, they consist of many, many funds of all sizes. Some of the funds are unrestricted; others are highly restricted. The community foundation takes fiscal responsibility for managing the capital and making sure that the funds are spent correctly. Most community foundations have wonderful donor services people who can work with prospective donors to establish funds that most meet their needs. There are probably other options, but this is one that I know well.


Question from Colin Purrington, Associate Professor, Swarthmore College:
In Dover, Pennsylvania, members of a local church donated multiple copies of a creationist textbook, Of Pandas and People, to the school library. How common is it for schools to get religious materials donated, and what type of policies would you suggest schools adopt prior to these instances?

Ronald Thorpe:
As a Pennsylvanian myself -- and as an educator -- I’ve been following with great interest the proceedings in Dover. I think your question actually has two interesting sides. The first one has to do with libraries, and I think it’s relatively easy, but it’s based on my own feelings about libraries and freedom of speech. Book banning of any sort seems to me a travesty. Libraries that ban Harry Potter or Catcher in the Rye are doing no favors to our democratic society. And of course they always end up encouraging MORE people to read the books because of human nature. I would have Of Pandas and People in my library, and I also would have the new edition of Darwin’s work, with commentary by E.O. Wilson. We are trying to raise people who know how to think, and blocking what they might think about is defeating the bigger goal. But whenever religion gets mixed into the conversation about schools, the water gets very murky.

The second part of your question comes down to mission and communication and thinking about things not in the heat of the moment -- when it’s harder to make a good decision -- but in Frost’s great phrase “recollected in tranquility”! And what I really would caution school administrators from doing is throwing up their arms in frustration and saying NO to everything as the only safe path. I would hope that school boards and others would help administrators avoid that sort of response.


Question from Howie Schaffer, Media Director, Public Education Network:
An increasing amount of private donations are being channelled into core instructional areas of schools including paying teacher salaries. Simply put, private money now pays for basics, not just extras in a growing number of schools across the nation. Some observers believe this undermines the public essence of public education when private donors dictate the terms and conditions of gifts to schools which are publicly governed. The fear, is that gifts to schools, in some cases, come with strings attached. Do you share any of these concerns?

Ronald Thorpe:
I’ve read that the “highest form” of giving is anonymous and unrestricted. I’m sure that’s right, but it’s seldom the case. I think we are in troubling waters when private donations have to pay for what all reasonable people would consider to be basic operating costs (salaries and benefits and physical plant being at the top of that list). People have always worried that private donors and their donations are too interested in purchasing control and power. (And then there’s the other group that criticizes the donor as simply trying to purchase a little protection in the afterlife!) As I said earlier, donors have every right to dictate the terms and conditions of their gifts to public schools or private schools or anyone willing to accept them. The courage and vision must come from the recipient. Are you willing to turn down $2 million in Reading First money from the Federal Government because you don’t happen to believe in the programs that come with the money? It’s not easy to do, but if that’s where you are, then that’s what you have to do. It’s no different with a private individual. If you aren’t comfortable with what they are asking you to do with the money -- or if the gift is going to cause you to spend other dollars that you have committed elsewhere (which, of course, is just another possible cause of your discomfort) -- you have to say no to the gift. The money just isn’t worth the trouble in the long run.


Question from Diane Stenerson, Teacher, Parent and Farmwife ISD 544:
Our local public highschool recently had referendum vote fail. This was good news for area farmers whose property tax increases would have increased by nearly 65%. What options are there for school funding in rural areas? Thank you very much!

Ronald Thorpe:
As someone who grew up in farm country in Central Pennsylvania and who despairs the lose of those farms every time I go home to visit, I feel very close to this question. But the question is not really all that different from certain urban areas where the real estate taxes are so hard to come by that there is little going to the schools. Your question really is what is at the root of the debates raging in many states about equitable funding of schools. And as long as school budgets are largely funded on real estate taxes, the issue will persist. Take a look at the Abbott court cases in New Jersey, where 29 (and now 31) districts are mandated to receive supplementary funds from the state because funding for public schools was found to be unconstitutional. It’s a huge undertaking, but in the end, the state has the responsibility of creating the sort of equity you hope to see. We’ve found out how to achieve this kind of equity in other areas -- such as telephone service. It’s a tragedy that the same political will can’t be brought to bear around our schools and the future of our children and our country.


Question from Robert Thurston, English teacher, Cumberland High School:
Who should decide where private money for public education is spent -- according to the prompt, “the recipient, who knows more clearly where the needs are, or the donor, who may want to effect change?” I applaud the efforts of private donors but wonder if public LEA’s have the will or intention to provide ongoing funds necessary for systemic change, rather than simply “churning” grants for specific programs. Literacy and technology should not be tied to grant funding.

Ronald Thorpe:
It’s wonderful to hear from Rob Thurston -- an outstanding teacher and a wonderful poet. And, of course, his question goes right to the heart of things. It is -- in my opinion -- the recipient’s responsibility to decide how the money is spent and on what priorities. At the same time, I sympathize with what drives this question. Outsiders CAN have great and catalytic ideas. If the folks within the district or school or on the school board continue to make short-sighted decisions about school priorities and the strategies to meet them, then the public must do what the public always can do: make their voices heard in the schools and at the board meetings, vote in different elected officials, etc. The political process works when the public is willing to get involved. But it’s always slow, and I can imagine that from a teacher’s perspective, the frustration can be enormous. After all, we’re happy when things eventually get better, but what about all of the lives that were short changed in the interim? Good teachers chafe at such things.


Comment from Carmen E. McLeod, teacher, WC Bryant School, Philadelphia:
Thank you for your last response to ISD544. My school is located only 20 minutes from one of the top 10 school districts in the country. Students have their own computers to use at will, attractive learning environmnets and the best of library resources. I also believe that the state should seriously consider more funding to inner city urban schools so that the students will graduate on the same level as these other students.


Question from Dr. Harvey Chiles, Education Dept. Chair, Southwestern Illinois College:
1.If we do not encourage private donations with clear parameters, how does the building principal attempt to fund basic instructional needs in view of budget cuts and the demands of No Child Left Behind? 2. Doesn’t such a trend change the manner in which we should be training principal’s as entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs? 3. Does private sector funding undermine the responsibility of the local and state governments to provide free and appropriate education to all children? 4. How might the delivery of education, in particulary secondary education, be restructured to permit re-allocation of resources diminishing the need for private sector donations?

Ronald Thorpe:
From these questions, I wish I’d have had Professor Chiles in my graduate program!

The entire structure of schooling and much of what happens within the walls of a classroom -- it seems to me -- could not stand up to even casual scrutiny. In a meeting not long ago, a colleague asked the basic question: if we had no schools and were starting over again, would we rebuild what we have now? The implied answer is sobering, but the truth is that much of schooling continues according to that OTHER side of inertia. We keep doing what we’ve been doing, and so many new things get added to an already overflowing situation. The teaching of American History is a perfect example. When I took my 11th grade US History course in 1968, we barely got to WWII. Now there are more than 3 decades of history to “cover” and I’m sure the teachers have the same problems. I recently asked a colleague in Great Britain how they handle British history -- which I though was a pretty good question because the history of that country goes back a lot farther than ours. He said that in the UK, British History is taught EVERY YEAR. So, my point is: what are the basic instructional needs? And what are the many ways we might bring our students to those end points -- not just the one way? But if the same basic structures are in place, and school “keeps” the way it has for a century in this country, then scarce resources are only going to make things worse. Under such conditions, I think we have to look for fundamentally different ways to go about our work, and not “tinker toward utopia” as David Tyack refers to it.

Yes, we need different kinds of principals. So much has been written on this topic, that I’m almost exhausted just to think about it. In the mid-90s I had the honor of reading hundreds of essays by principals talking about the experience they had in the first year of the job. Then I selected 30 which were collected in a little book called “The First Year as Principal.” I learned so much about the chaotic life of a public school principal and the largely impossible conditions under which they have to work. Because my own teaching was in two independent schools, where leadership was treated much differently, I was amazed by these stories. Almost no mediated entry into the position. Precious little authority to make decisions about the education of children. Preparation that was minimal in quality and quantity. Yes, we need to rethink the principalship and the conditions under which these people try to work.

I do not think private funding undermines the responsibility of local and state government. It certainly CAN lead to that, but not because of the funding or the funders; that only happens because of other flaws in the political system.

It’s pretty clear that we do not give students -- especially high school students -- enough responsibility for their own education. Years ago Ted Sizer talked about “teachers as coach; students as workers.” Kids have so much untapped capacity that it’s a shame that we continue to structure their lives the way they do. They have every right to be as bored and disaffected as they are. I think a basic change in our expectations of students could also lead to some interesting reallocation of funds.


Question from Jeanne Ludt - School Board Member - Souhegan High School - New Hampshire:
In 1992 when our high school first opened the founding “folks” drew up a 25 year contract with a private soccer club to give them first dibs on our fields (after the high school) and the right to hold a yearly Memorial Day tournament at our school in exchange for the club purchasing the lights for the stadium and a field. A joint account was set up where the proceeds of the tournament would be placed and available for use after joint agreement on how the money was to be spent. Things have changed over time and now there are more town sponsored sports competing for field use and we have run into some problems satisfying everyone’s needs. My question is this, is it appropriate for a high school to obligate public land (taxpayer owned) to a private club when it interferes with town sponsored sports needs?

Ronald Thorpe:
I know your school well and visited there when the middle school principal, teachers and parents were still “designing” the new high school. It was an exhilarating experience.

The issue you refer to gets to something that’s very challenging: the proper phrasing of gifts and their intentions. At any given moment, most of us like to believe that we are creating things for the ages! And what a glorious idea that is! But the truth is, few people have such wisdom and insight. Plus we should respect future generations enough to allow them to build their own great plans and not just be saddled with carrying forth all the great ideas of the past. Therefore, I favor putting time limits on such gifts, or building in language that allows the money to be redirected in the future according to policies and procedures that are thoughtful. I’ve been working with a donor recently who wanted to endow a program that is working beautifully. I was able to convince him that it would be glorious enough to help this work continue for the next 10 years, but at that time things ought to be reviewed again to keep within the spirit of his gift not just the specifics of what his money was supporting now. And because he is a savvy business person, he agreed that the smart money would be on agility in the future that neither he nor I could predict.


Question from Jim Mordecai, teacher, Oakland Unified Schools:
Oakland California’s Unified School District is bankrupt and under State receivership. The school board is stripped of its power and all power is concentrated in a State Administrator. The District is run by a State Administrator and four managers all graduates of the Broad Foundation. Does a private donor have an obligation to avoid the Oaklands without a democratic voice and the power to say no to the Wallmarts and the Broad foundations pushing a business management model on public education?

Ronald Thorpe:
Receivership puts this issue into a whole different light, doesn’t it? And it’s bad business. I don’t know every case, but I’m not aware of any receivership situation that has worked out very well. The issue here is with the appointment of the administrator and the managers. In fairness, however, I think it’s probably safe to assume that just because all of the managers are “graduates of the Broad Foundation” that they are all of the same mind. They might be, but on the surface that isn’t necessarily the case. The loss of the democratic voice, as you describe it, is the confounding variable. The public schools are still the public’s business, and as messy as that is -- like democracy itself -- it’s the system we have and must work to strengthen.


Lani Harac, Teacher Magazine (Moderator):
It looks like it’s time to wrap up. Thank you again to everyone who participated. And an especially hearty thanks to Ronald Thorpe for his thought-provoking answers. A transcript of this chat will be available shortly on our Web site.



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