NOT Your Tax Dollars At Work
By Kate Stone Lombardi
Illustration by Jon Krause
More sophisticated than your basic PTA bake sale, Westchester school foundations have raised millions of dollars to revamp curricula, train teachers and reinstate classes and programs dropped during state budget cuts. But are some schools faring better than others as a result?
In Chappaqua, all three elementary schools have new digital movie cameras and editing equipment. One also has a newly renovated greenhouse. Another houses a new weather station. The middle school just began a special entrepreneurship initiative for 7th and 8th graders. High school photography students have new darkroom equip-ment. None of these items are to be found in the district school budget.
Rather, the schools were granted these enrichments—and then some—by their local education foundation.
In what has become a growing trend over the last decade, local residents have banded together to donate private funds to public school districts. Westchester currently boasts no less than 31 school foundations, ranging from those just starting out with a handful of newly devoted parents to well established, sophisticated fundraising machines.
Private schools, of course, have a long tradition of tapping parents for contributions. No sooner have hefty tuition checks cleared, than the special appeals and capital drives begin. But public schools have always been wary of accepting cash gifts from parents and rarely had a legal vehicle to do so. “Schools have always been hesitant about receiving gifts directly, because there is a concern that special privileges might be given to a child whose parents gave something to the school,” says Jan Wells, who served on the Chappaqua School Board for 12 years and later founded the hamlet’s school foundation. “If it’s done directly, the action might be considered buying favoritism.”
Enter the school foundations. Incorporated as legal and financial entities separate from the schools, these not-for-profits solicit donations from the community and then transfer those funds back to the district, usually in the form of grants. Suddenly, public schools have access to parents who want to contribute something—besides their tax dollars—to support their children’s education.
Many of these foundations are forces to be reckoned with. This is not your PTA bake sale. Some foundations qualify for corporate matching gifts, accept gifts of securities and encourage bequests. And the money they can pour into the schools is significant. The Bronxville School Foundation, for example, has given more than $2 million since it was formed 12 years ago.
The impact of school foundations can be seen in dozens of public school
classrooms throughout Westchester. Elementary school students in Mamaroneck have a butterfly garden; high school students in Briarcliff Manor can study forensic science; Ardsley High School has new sound, lighting and stage equipment in its auditorium; Dobbs Ferry has a major new technology initiative; Edgemont High School has a new darkroom; Irvington Middle School has a poet in residence—the list of foundation-funded projects goes on and on.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars have poured into Westchester districts, all by way of school foundations helping to revamp curriculums, train teachers, reinstate driver’s education classes that had been dropped during budget cuts, pay for school trips, set up programs for children at risk, fund drug- and alcohol-education programs and more. Brewster had one of the first school foundations; planning began in 1989. Bronxville followed in 1991. More local foundations were founded in the early 1990s, when large cuts in state funding forced school districts to slash budgets to the bare bones. Suddenly, art and music programs were being eliminated and aging equipment could not be replaced. At the cusp of the technology revolution, many school districts were saddled with outdated computers, obsolete science equipment, and a lack of money for teacher training.
“Many foundations grew up around the same time when state funding was cut back and parents were realizing that schools couldn’t rely on the budget,” says Francesca Spinner, who has organized a roundtable of Westchester’s school foundations. With Governor George Pataki currently proposing an 8.5 percent overall reduction in state aid to schools, districts may soon again be looking to school foundations to fill in the gaps once covered by Albany. The proposed cuts translate into $1.2 billion.
At first glance, parental
generosity in response to school budget cuts seems like an apple pie and motherhood issue. Who could object to parents generously supporting the education of their children, particularly in ways which benefit the entire school district and not just their own individual offspring?
Yet, the foundations do have their critics. They argue that school districts might become overly dependent on educational foundations to fund what should ultimately be the district’s responsibility.
“To me, foundations that limit thier activity to funneling money to the school system are not building the capacity of the schools to better educate their children over time,” says Paul Reville, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “It’s the ultimate in soft money—it’s there one year, but it’s not going to be there the next. I think it’s bad public policy to develop a school system that’s reliant on the good will of the philanthropic impulses of the public at large.”
And where does one draw the line between a basic, bottom-line item in the budget and an enrichment? Surely the districts are responsible for teachers’ salaries and textbooks. But are computers part of a basic education or do they qualify as an enrichment? What about teacher training? Are art and music frills, or should they be part of a core curriculum?
There are also issues of fairness. In a state that has been sued over the effects of disparities in school aid formulas, educational foundations have come under fire for reinforcing the inequities of public school financing. Since a significant portion of school budgets are derived from local property taxes, study after study has shown that the neediest students receive far less local tax money than students who live in wealthier districts. Add to that equation the notion of local philanthropy and you get parents with deep pockets able to donate generously to already enriched school districts. So while communities like Chappaqua and Bronxville continue to add even more enrichments to their top-rated public schools, districts like Mount Vernon and Yonkers, with far fewer amenities to start with, do not even have school foundations.
“When you get private money going to defray the normal operating expenses of a school system, you are going to tolerate a wide disparity in resources,” Reville says. “Advantaged parents in advantaged communities typically have more to spend on their children than parents of children in disadvantaged communities, so the rich get richer and the poor stay the same.”
While this may be true, some foundation directors counter that because state education funding is based on property assessments, many wealthier Westchester communities receive far less state aid than do towns with less valuable real estate. For instance, in Scarsdale, it cost the district $14,894 to educate each pupil in the 1999-2000 school year. The portion of that paid by local taxes was $12,976. By contrast, in Yonkers, where real estate is less expensive, the district spent $13,530 on each pupil, but local taxes funded only $4,143 of it. Since local taxpayers bear the brunt of school taxes, an increasing number of Westchester towns have been voting down school budgets and bonds. School boards are forced to present tight budgets to their communities in order to get them passed at all.
In 1999, Westchester was second only to Erie County in the number of school districts in New York where voters rejected proposed budgets; Erie’s voters turned down eight proposals, while in Westchester voters turned down school spending plans in seven—Katonah-Lewisboro, New Rochelle, Mount Vernon, Valhalla, Greenburgh, Tuckahoe and North Salem.
“That’s part of the need for school foundations,” says Debra Paget, president of the Katonah-Lewisboro School Foundation, “because in Westchester the taxpayers pay 80 percent of the burden for schools. It gives the schools very little leeway to do things very new and innovative, because school budgets are focused on the needs rather than the wants.”
Nor do you need to live in a wealthy town to have a successful school foundation. In Tarrytown, an economically and socially diverse district—with a median income of $68,762 (as opposed to, say, Yonkers, which has a median income of $44,663), the school foundation has secured government and corporate grants to pay for a variety of programs, including an after-school tutoring and enrichment program, which couldn’t possibly have been covered by individual donations.
“Between private donations and grants, we’ve raised close to $3 million for our schools,” says Ellie Becker, president of the Foundation for the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns. Reville does believe foundations can be useful when they provide seed money for an initiative that might not otherwise get started, as long as the district does not become dependent on that funding over time. This was exactly the way it worked in Tarrytown with Blackboard.com, a program which enabled children throughout the district to communicate in real time with teachers and fellow students through an interactive Internet network.
The school district had studied Blackboard.com and thought it would greatly benefit the students. But there was no money in the school budget for the capital investment. The foundation was able to give the district the funds to get the program started, providing seed money for teacher training, investment in the software and other set-up costs. Now the school district pays for the ongoing program; in the meantime, the foundation looks to fund new initiatives.
Most foundations do work closely with the schools to decide how to allocate the money they raise. At the same time, the schools do not simply ask and then receive. Most foundations award grants based on proposals, which are carefully reviewed by a committee. Those proposals can come from school administrators, teachers, parents or students. Some foundations look for proposals that will have an impact on the greatest number of students. Still others like to finance pilot projects, which, while they initially may only affect a classroom or two, have the potential to be adopted throughout a district if they are successful.
Grants can be especially motivating to teachers, because they can serve as a stimulus for creative thinking—transforming a “what if” idea into a potential reality, with funding dollars at the end of the rainbow. A teacher with an innovative idea for teaching foreign languages would have a much easier time making a case for a start-up program to a foundation than she would in front of a school board.
Raising money for all these projects is no small undertaking. The foundations vary in their fundraising depending on the size and sophistication of the group. Most school foundations send an annual appeal to community members. The dinner dance and silent auction fundraiser is also de rigeur for many groups. Brewster has long held a Corvette raffle every year—and has learned how to target Corvette enthusiasts from near and far by targeting Web sites visited by Corvette enthusiasts. The 2001 winner hailed from far away White Lake, MI. This year, the foundation sold nearly 750 raffle tickets at $100 each. Some communities snag celebrities to improve their profiles—Vanessa Williams serves on Chappaqua’s School Foundation and Lucie Arnaz has helped the Katonah-Lewiboro School Foundation.
About five years ago, Francesca Spinner, one of the founders of the Foundation for the Public Schools of the Tarrytowns, decided to bring together all of Westchester’s school foundations for a roundtable discussion. “The idea was to exchange ideas and provide moral support,” Spinner says.
The group—in which roughly 25 foundations participate—now meets twice a year. Newer foundations learn the ropes from the groups that have been around for a decade, sharing ideas on fundraising, board development and the nuts and bolts of awarding grants.
The influence of a strong school foundation can be measured by more than simply the dollars it delivers to the classrooms. It can also be seen in the increased level of parental involvement in the schools, as well as in the raised profile of the school district.
“People who see that there’s this very strong body of involved parents feel more comfortable about our school district and our community,” says Becker. “We kind of serve almost as a public relations tool for our district.”
Of course it’s not only distant critics from Harvard who object to school foundations. Some local parents resent being tapped for more dollars, particularly those who live in districts where school taxes are already high. Says one Armonk mother, “Our children do not have to have every single thing under the sun. To me, the school foundation is superfluous. It’s not like kids’ lives are going to be ruined if they don’t have digital cameras or yoga classes.”
But lucky school districts, given access to a flow of money over and above what Albany sends their way,
have few complaints. Bronxville Superintendent Warren H. Gemmill said he would be hard-pressed to find a child in the school district who had not in some way benefited from a school foundation grant. “Their impact is nothing short of phenomenal,” Dr. Gemmill says.
Chappaqua resident Kate Stone Lombardi is a freelance writer who has written about education extensively.