March 23, 2012 / 2:00 PM / 6 years ago

Bank of PTA: Parents scramble to fill school budget gaps

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rebecca Levey, co-president of the Parent Association at the William T. Sherman School in New York, is terrified about the school’s upcoming auction.

A team of experienced volunteers is managing the March 24 event which will be held at a St. Paul’s the Apostle Church, and the stakes are high.

The parent association at this Manhattan public school hopes to raise about $300,000 from the event. That money helps pay for a librarian, kindergarten assistants and numerous enrichment programs - including chess and ballroom dancing - no longer funded by the district.

Overall, the parent association budget is now $600,000, three times as much as it was when Levey’s 9-year-old twins started kindergarten at the Upper West Side school. “The school budget really just covers staff,” she says.

While the National Parent Teacher Association doesn’t keep track of how much money its 5 million members raise, interviews with dozens of schools and state PTAs confirm that as states have slashed school funding, parent contributions to public schools have soared.

It’s no longer unusual for families at well-heeled schools to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars a year - even a million - for copy machines, paper, finger paints and other school supplies along with gym, art and music programs.

PTA funds also are used for much-needed building maintenance, classroom aides and essential staff like school nurses, but critics fear that these voluntary funds inadvertently let states off the hook and widen the gap between rich schools and poor, which can’t raise that kind of cash.

“It’s one thing to raise $300 for a teacher to buy school supplies, but it’s another thing to say $1 million,” says Arnold Fege, director of public engagement and advocacy at the Public Education Network in Washington, a network of community-based school reform organizations.

“This really moves us in the wrong direction,” he adds. “When we should be looking at adequacy, we’re assuring a system where there are winners and losers.”


Indeed, 37 states now provide less funding to elementary and high schools than they did last year, and 30 states spend less than they did four years ago, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan research and policy institute in Washington.

But in an age of helicopter dads and tiger moms, parents are eager to maintain class sizes and popular enrichment programs. Parent associations feel the pressure to raise money to fill the gap.

While some states hope to restore at least some money this fall as the economy improves, the funding gap could worsen because the federal government is scheduled to impose a 9 percent cut to educational aid in January as a result of last year’s budget deficit negotiations, according to Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the center.

“Fundraising has always been something we did, but it’s gotten even bigger,” says Betsy Landers, president of the National PTA, which discourages schools from paying for personnel. “And we’re telling our members that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The vast majority of our states are cutting education funding.”

California is bracing for another round of cuts. In the last three years, it has cut more than $20 billion from its public school budget and laid off more than 40,000 educators.

As a result, parents at schools like Carpenter Community Charter School in Studio City, California now raise around $550,000 a year compared with $330,000 just three years ago for staff, supplies and programs.

“We can’t conceive of a world where our school doesn’t have a library,” says Andrew Barrett, the PTA president. “We can’t conceive of a world where music isn’t integral. There’s no doubt that California is falling behind, but Carpenter doesn’t have to.”

The school considers itself fortunate because about 70 percent of the families participate in the voluntary giving campaign by donating at least the recommended amount of $700 a child. The school raises another $100,000 to $150,000 at the annual dinner, which has featured auction items including a tour of Jay Leno’s garage, a vacation in Lake Tahoe and an opportunity to do the morning announcements with the principal. A recent walkathon raised $45,000 to $50,000.

At Levey’s P.S. 87 in New York, a cadre of 200 well-trained volunteers begin each summer planning the annual dinner and auction. The food is donated by local restaurants; auction items include summer camp tuition, a trip to London and a meet-and-greet with performer Taylor Swift.

But not all schools are as fortunate. In many locations, cash-strapped families are feeling the same financial pressures as the state, and they can’t ask parents to contribute more. “It has been more challenging each year because of the economic situation and the budget cuts,” says Jackie Waters, president of the Kansas state PTA. “So many people are getting laid off.”

Sally Miller, PTA co-president, at the Will Rogers Learning Community in Santa Monica, California understands. The elementary school does the same types of fundraising as others in the district, but it raises only $70,000 compared with the $700,000 at other elementary schools -- 55 percent to 60 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“The more we continue to raise the money,” she says “The more we let the state off the hook for things they should be funding. We’re not paying for extras, we’re paying for copy machines, nurses, art programs, PE (physical education) coaches.” The school gets extra funding because it is a Title 1 school; however, those resources are used to help close the achievement gap, she says.

Like a growing number of school districts, the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District is trying to address the issue because it has schools that raise $1,100 per student while others get $65 per student for personnel. The school board decided in November that the district has until 2014 to come up with a more equitable policy that would prohibit individual schools from hiring staff.

“The hard part is that here are parents doing what they can to support their children’s education,” says Santa Monica Malibu superintendent Sandra Lyon. “We just want to make sure that if you go to one of our schools, there may be a difference, but now wild discrepancies are based on ZIP code.”

Reporting By Jilian Mincer; Editing by Lauren Young and Jonathan Oatis

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