Fundraising Frustration

Disparities grow as parent groups raise money to cover school funding gaps

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Carmen Stevens, left, and Amarria Miller volunteer at their classroom's bake sale in December. The Gilpin Montessori students were raising funds for their class pets.

Stephenie Falcone’s children attend two Denver schools just a mile apart, but when it comes to fundraising power, the differences are vast.

The contrast was particularly stark on Tuesday, December 8.

At Gilpin Montessori that afternoon, parents and students scraped together $300 by selling nut-free zucchini bread, red velvet cookies and bagels during the school’s “Winter Wonderland” concert. Nearly three-quarters of the school’s students come from low-income families.

On the very same day, a parent-teacher group at Polaris at Ebert Elementary, a gifted and talented magnet school with few poor students, raised $14,400 through a direct giving campaign associated with Colorado Gives Day.

The gap between the two schools’ fundraising tallies will likely exceed $100,000 by the end of the year—with Gilpin’s parents covering expenses like books, soccer T-shirts and field trips while Polaris parents raise enough to cover teacher or paraprofessional salaries.

The disparity between the two schools is hardly unique. The school fundraising playing field has always been uneven—reflecting the socioeconomic status of each school’s population—so the same story plays out across Denver and the state.

But observers say it’s gotten worse in recent years as state education cuts have forced more expenses onto the shoulders of Colorado parents—in the form of additional fees and ever-increasing fundraising goals. While high-powered parent groups work mightily to compensate for slashed funding, many schools slog along with low-dollar butter braid sales. And so the divide grows.

"You’re dropping ice cubes into boiling water and it’s better, but as long as the source of problem is getting worse you just cannot keep up."Lisa Weil, executive director, Great Education Colorado

“This is the state not fulfilling the obligation to our kids,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a group that advocates for improved state education funding.

Colorado ranked 43 among states and Washington, DC for per-pupil education funding, according to Education Week’s 2015 Quality Counts report, a wide-ranging look at education trends.

Weil likened the growing fundraising burden to a frog in boiling water—with the water heating so gradually, there’s no sudden sense of danger.

“Parents need to realize that the water has been boiling for a while.”

With every infusion of fundraising cash, she said, “You’re dropping ice cubes into boiling water and it’s better, but as long as the source of problem is getting worse you just cannot keep up.”

Efforts exist to pump up low-income schools’ fundraising muscle or share fundraising proceeds among schools, but they’re not widespread.

As a parent of children at two very different schools, Falcone doesn’t fault Polaris parents for their fundraising prowess, but wishes more could be done to close the gap.

At Gilpin, she said, raising big bucks is like “chipping away at a giant glacier with a spoon.”

The fortunate few

A scan of Guidestar’s database of nonprofit financial reports reveals that more than a half-dozen Colorado PTAs or PTOs—most in Denver—reported income of $200,000 or more in 2013. At least a dozen more reported more than $100,000.

“I don’t blame them,” said Shawna Fritzler, a Jeffco parent and treasurer of the Colorado PTA. “I want to do the best for my school, too. But at the same time, I hate creating that inequity.”

Slavens, Steele, Bromwell, Westerly Creek, Lowry, Bill Roberts, Cory, Swigert and University Park are among the highest fundraising schools in Denver, according to Guidestar. There are also several high-grossing schools outside the city, though their fundraising proceeds tend to be somewhat lower than Denver’s top tier.

"I want to do the best for my school, too. But at the same time, I hate creating that inequity."Shawna Fritzler, Colorado PTA treasurer

At many higher-income schools, parents have the time and know-how to organize galas, wine-tastings and auctions. They may be able to line up lucrative sponsorships or secure big-ticket auction items—things like week-long Mexican getaways, autographed sports memorabilia or limousine outings.

Many also have the means to attend ticketed fundraisers and contribute generously to their schools’ direct giving campaigns.

But tapping parents in the same way at Gilpin and many other district schools is unrealistic.

“Our school has working parents, single parents, grandparents raising their grandchildren,” said Jenn Koelliker, who has three children at Gilpin and a baby at home. “We don’t have stay-at-home moms with middle-class backgrounds like myself going out and using their free time to raise money.”

A contribution from every family

Slavens in southeast Denver, reported earning $260,000 from six fundraising events in 2013—$187,000 of that from an auction, according to IRS documents.

The K-8 school, where just 8 percent of students are eligible for free or discounted meals, clearly communicates its expectation that families contribute to the “culture of giving,” stating on its website, “We encourage parents to give of their time, money and talent every year…Our goal is to achieve 100% participation.”

The school also gives back to the community—donating $5,000 annually to the Denver Public Schools Foundation, providing holiday gifts to families at nearby Ellis Elementary and facilitating student-led fundraisers for charities such as Ronald McDonald House.

Principal Kurt Siebold acknowledged that Slavens is among the fortunate few, but said even with the PTA’s ambitious fundraising efforts the school isn’t staffed as well as it was nine years ago when he started there.

“I’ve had to tighten the belt in the whole school budget,” he said.

He said the problem is even greater for schools in the middle of the socioeconomic pack—the ones that don’t pack a hard fundraising punch but don’t receive federal Title 1 funds earmarked for schools with large low-income populations.

Mark Ferrandino, Denver Public Schools’ Chief Financial Officer, agreed and said that such schools can get access to a special $8 million pot of district money called “budget assistance.”

That funding is generally doled out in $75,000-$120,000 chunks, depending on the school’s needs, he said.

Lack of transparency

There’s not much transparency in the school fundraising world. Most parent groups operate in relative seclusion, with record-keeping typically left to volunteers.

While Guidestar provides IRS records for PTA chapters or similar parent groups, they are sometimes out-of-date or incomplete. Some parent groups don’t submit them at all.

The state education department doesn’t track school fundraising either. School districts may track the money to some extent, but it’s not typically accessible to the public.

In response to a question from Chalkbeat about school-by-school fundraising totals, Denver Public Schools spokesman Will Jones wrote via email that it would take 80 to 100 hours to audit the accounts where schools’ fundraising proceeds are held.

But most people aren’t clamoring for such information anyway.

In addition, many don’t understand how state education funding impacts the school fundraising landscape, said Jonna Levine, public policy director for Colorado PTA.

A lot of people don’t “pay attention to what’s going on and what creates that fundraising hole.”

Cupcakes for sale

Back in December, three Gilpin fifth-graders helped man the bake sale table in the school’s foyer. Cookies were two for 50 cents and a large heart-shaped brownie was going for $10. Hot coffee and cocoa were available for a donation.

Eymi Velazquez, center right, takes money from a Gilpin Montessori parent in December. Velazequez helped raise money for her classroom's pets.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Eymi Velazquez, center right, takes money from a Gilpin Montessori parent in December. Velazequez helped raise money for her classroom’s pets.

The students were raising money to care for their classroom pets—lizards and iguanas.

While hundreds of parents flowed in and out of the auditorium, few stopped to buy treats. Parent Iema Velazquez, who supervised the students, said most customers were parents who’d baked or donated items for the sale.

“They’re the same ones who buy,” she said with a shrug.

At a more affluent school, collecting money for pet supplies would be an easier lift, Koelliker said.

“Normally a room parent would say, ‘Hey, everybody give me $5.’ That doesn’t work in our school,” she said.

The same is true across town at Place Bridge Academy, where 95 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals and many are refugees from war-torn countries.

"Normally a room parent would say, ‘Hey, everybody give me $5.’ That doesn’t work in our school."Jenn Koelliker, Gilpin parent

Parents there don’t organize any school fundraisers. Instead, staff members spearhead the annual candy sale, which reaps about $2,500 for the school.

Principal Brenda Kazin said she’d like to see more money coming in, especially to help with after-school busing costs. But aside from applying for grants, there’s not a lot she can do.

“I just live with it and I do what I can to make sure the children get something from the extra money that we have,” she said.

Paying for staff

Financial documents for schools that routinely raise $100,000 or more a year reveal that many are using the money to pay for staff salaries—allowing them to lower staff-student ratios, give teachers more planning time or offer instruction that might not otherwise be available.

For example, fundraising by the Polaris PTO this year helped pay for two teachers, according to the group’s minutes. The PTO’s statement on the Colorado Gives website says fundraising money helps provide aides in every classroom, a full-time librarian and full-time art, music and physical education teachers.

The same website shows that at Steele Elementary in the affluent Washington Park neighborhood, the PTA pays for paraprofessionals or interns in every classroom and two part-time intervention teachers.

At Lowry Elementary, a more mixed-income school in the upscale Lowry development, the PTO helps pay for additional paraprofessionals, a gifted and talented teacher, a full-time intervention teacher and a humanities facilitator.

To experts, recurring expenses such as staff salaries shouldn’t fall to parents. They’re basics that should be covered by state per-pupil funding.

“You never want to fundraise for salaries or benefits or to pay your rent or your water bill,” said Nora Flood, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

Among the state’s six largest districts, Cherry Creek, Douglas County, Aurora and Adams 12, have no policies addressing the use of parent group donations for staff salaries.

"There’s got to be a way to provide the same fundraising advantage for poor neighborhoods."Stephenie Falcone, Gilpin and Polaris parent

Denver and Jeffco have nearly identical policies on the issue.

Both say that principals have discretion when it comes to donations for classified staff, but that donations to employ teachers with daily classroom responsibilities should be handled centrally, with top administrators determining “the distribution of such donations based on need, equity and other school specific variables.”

Denver Public School administrators said district leaders try to honor the intentions of the donating group and that the “school specific” provision allows for flexibility in applying the policy.

Even at Gilpin—where annual fundraising tops out at $15,000—generating enough money to pay for additional staff is the ultimate goal.

Parents who are part of the school’s fundraising arm, “Friend of Gilpin,” say they need $60,000 to bring back seven City Year staff members who last year served as mentors and coaches. The energetic college graduates provided extra hands in the classroom and eased discipline problems at the school, which is under threat of closure.

“I have seen it save small boys specifically,” said Koelliker. “My goal is to raise that kind of money this year.”

But most of it won’t come out of parents’ pocketbooks. In fact, the school’s most successful fundraiser is a home tour in the Five Points neighborhood that targets community members rather than parents. Last year’s inaugural tour brought in $4,000 and this year it raised $8,000.

Still, it’s a far cry from $60,000, and that’s why both Koelliker and Falcone are still searching for their golden ticket.

“There’s got to be a way to provide the same fundraising advantage for poor neighborhoods,” said Falcone.

“Public school is not free anymore.”

No easy answers

While some parents and educators daydream about a scenario in which affluent schools share their fundraising proceeds with struggling schools, they know there would be resistance.

"I just live with it and I do what I can to make sure the children get something from the extra money that we have."Brenda Kazin, principal, Place Bridge Academy

“I think you’d get pushback from the parents,” said Kazin, the Place Bridge Academy principal. “They have the right to spend their money where they want to.”

That said, many schools do extend help to the less advantaged—say, by contributing to a community nonprofit or offering help to a sister school. Such contributions can be a hodgepodge, however, neither sustained nor systematic.

School district foundations often direct money to high-needs schools, but not exclusively. For example, the Denver Public Schools Foundation offers some types of assistance through a grant process and some to schools where at least 70 percent of students are low-income.

In northwest Denver, an annual bar and restaurant crawl called “Totally Tennyson” provides something of an antidote to the every-man-for-himself model of school fundraising. The event, originally run by the online community Highland Mommies and now privately managed, raises around $60,000 for 15 schools in the area—both high-income and low-income.

"Until people really start coming out in droves, it’s not going to change."Jonna Levine, public policy director, Colorado PTA

The money isn’t divided evenly, though. A school’s take depends partly on the number of $25 tickets parents and staff there sell and how many volunteers each school provides to help run the event. Additional funds are distributed based on a formula that takes a school’s need into account.

To leaders of Colorado’s PTA, the perennial focus on fundraising by parent groups is a long-standing problem. They say the primary goal of PTA chapters should be advocacy.

“You have some parents who can fundraise like nobody’s business,” Levine said.

But they could make a big difference if they put some of that energy into advocating for state-level change—for example, writing letters and making phone calls urging lawmakers to address the school funding crisis.

“Until people really start coming out in droves,” she said, “it’s not going to change.”

Deputy Bureau Chief Nic Garcia contributed to this report.

If you’d like to share your school’s unique fundraising challenge or solution with Chalkbeat, email us at [email protected]

Alliance

Memphis just gained an important ally in its legal battle with Tennessee over school funding

PHOTO: MNPS
The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in Shelby County Schools' funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee.

For more than two years, a funding lawsuit by Memphis school leaders has been winding through the state’s legal system.

Now, as the litigation inches closer to a court date next year, Shelby County Schools has gained a powerful ally in its battle with Tennessee over the adequacy of funding for its schools and students.

The board for Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools voted unanimously Tuesday to become a co-plaintiff in the case.

The decision ends almost three years of talk from Nashville about going to court.

In 2015 at the urging of then-director Jesse Register, the district’s board opted for conversation over litigation with Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration about how to improve education funding in Tennessee.

But Register moved on, and the board’s dissatisfaction grew as the percentage of state funding for the district’s budget shrank. Adding to their frustration, Haslam backed off last year from an enhanced funding formula approved in 2007 during the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

“We’ve just come to grips with the harsh reality that we are a chronically underfunded school system,” said Will Pinkston, a board member who has urged legal action.

Nashville’s decision is welcome news for Memphis. A statement Wednesday from the state’s largest district called the lawsuit “the most important civil rights litigation in Tennessee in the last 30 years.”

“When you have the two largest school districts in Tennessee on the same side, I think it’s very powerful,” added former board chairman Chris Caldwell, who has championed the lawsuit in behalf of Shelby County Schools.

Both boards are working with Tennessee-based Baker Donelson, one of the South’s largest and oldest law firms. It has offices in both cities.

“We believe that our original case had a strong message about the inadequacy of education funding in Tennessee,” said Lori Patterson, lead attorney in the case from Memphis. “We believe that having the second largest district in the state join the suit and make the same claims only makes the message stronger.”

PHOTO: TN.Gov
Gov. Bill Haslam

Haslam’s administration declined to comment Wednesday about the new development, but has stood by Tennessee’s funding model. In a 2016 response to the Shelby County lawsuit, the state said its formula known as the Basic Education Plan, or BEP, provides adequate funding under state law.

But Shelby County, in its 2015 suit, argues that not only does the state not adequately fund K-12 schools, it doesn’t fully fund its own formula. And the formula, it charges, “fails to take into account the actual costs of funding an education,” especially for the many poor students in Memphis. To provide an adequate education, the lawsuit says the district needs more resources to pay for everything from math and reading tutors to guidance counselors and social workers.

States often get sued over funding for schools — and frequently lose those cases. In Tennessee, state courts heard three such cases from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, siding with local districts every time. Those suits keyed in on built-in inequities in the state’s funding formula that cause some districts to get more money than others.

This time, the argument is about adequacy. What is the true cost of educating today’s students, especially in the shift to more rigorous academic standards?

Tennessee is also the defendant in a separate funding lawsuit filed in 2015 by seven southeast Tennessee school districts including Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga.

Pinkston said Nashville opted to join the Memphis suit because its arguments are most applicable to the state’s second largest district. “Our student populations are very similar in terms of high socioeconomic needs,” he said.

transportation

Parent concerns prompt Denver Public Schools to change how it’s spending a chunk of tax dollars

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/Denver Post
An RTD bus heads downtown along Colfax Ave. in 2016.

Denver Public Schools is changing course on how it will spend $400,000 in local tax dollars earmarked for student transportation after parents and community organizations claimed the district had not followed through on a promise to increase options for high school students.

The dollars are part of a $56.6 million tax increase voters approved in November. This school year, the district allocated $273,000 to buy bus passes for 630 additional students at two schools: Northfield High and Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design. However, it earmarked the remaining $127,000 to pay for transportation for special needs students.

Superintendent Tom Boasberg announced Monday evening that the $127,000 set aside for special needs transportation would be immediately reallocated so that all $400,000 is being spent on bus passes for high school students.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the community,” Boasberg said.

Parents and other advocates say that while the reallocation is a move in the right direction, it doesn’t relieve all of their worries about how the money will be spent.

“That’s great,” parent Karen Mortimer said. “But what is your next step?”

Transportation is a hot-button issue for Denver Public Schools. The district has been nationally recognized for its school choice system, which allows its 92,000 students to request to attend any one of its more than 200 schools. However, DPS does not provide transportation to most students who choose a school that is not the assigned school in their neighborhood.

Critics argue that not providing transportation to all students leaves families who don’t have a vehicle or the means to transport their children across town with no choice at all.

Nearly half of the district’s 20,623 high school students — 9,256 — don’t qualify for DPS transportation because they don’t attend their assigned schools, according to numbers presented to the school board at a work session Monday night.

Another 4,394 don’t qualify for transportation because they live within three and a half miles of their assigned schools, a distance the district considers walkable.

In a bid to reduce those numbers, a committee of 75 parents, students, teachers and taxpayers tasked with recommending how to spend the tax revenue suggested earmarking $400,000 each year for a “new effort to increase high school students’ access to high quality schools and educational opportunities through greater transportation options.”

Whereas most ideas for how to spend the $56.6 million in tax revenue came from DPS staff, the idea to expand transportation originated with the committee members.

The final recommendation, which was adopted by the school board, said DPS would “work with community stakeholders to secure matching funds, and design and implement a test effort to positively impact students,” which has not yet happened.

If the test effort wasn’t working, the recommendation said, the district could use those funds “for other efforts to increase access to educational opportunities.”

In a statement Friday, Superintendent Tom Boasberg said the district was using the funds “as promised,” a contention advocates disputed, to pay for transportation for high school students and students with special needs. DPS saw an increase this year of 78 students whose needs exceed the district’s capacity to serve them and who are being bused elsewhere by third-party companies, according to a district spokeswoman and information provided to the school board.

But Boasberg said Monday that as of this month, the $127,000 that was earmarked for special education transportation would be spent on high school students instead. District officials estimated that sum would buy an additional 370 bus passes. Boasberg said they “look forward to a discussion with the community” about how to distribute them.

Meanwhile, community members said they’re still confused about how DPS distributed the 630 additional passes it already purchased with the $273,000 in tax revenue.

“The community was left out of the loop,” said Matt Samelson of the Denver-based Donnell-Kay Foundation, which has been pushing for the district to come up with a plan for how to use the $400,000 before February, when families must make their school choices for next year. (The foundation is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat).

District spokeswoman Nancy Mitchell told Chalkbeat that most of the 630 passes went to students at Northfield High, a comprehensive high school that opened in northeast Denver in 2015. The district had been providing yellow bus service to Northfield because the Regional Transportation District didn’t serve the area. But it does now, Mitchell said, so Northfield students who meet the district’s criteria for bus passes got them this year.

To qualify for transportation, high school students must attend their assigned schools and live more than three and a half miles away. District policy allows other students to receive transportation, too. That includes those learning English as a second language, for example, or those attending certain types of schools, including magnet and Montessori schools.

Students at Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design, which also opened in 2015, received a portion of the 630 passes because the district “determined DSISD most resembles a pathway school for purposes of transportation, as they do not have an enrollment boundary,” according to a statement from DPS spokeswoman Jessie Smiley.

“Pathway” schools are alternative schools that serve students who’ve struggled elsewhere. DSISD is not a pathway school. It was rated “blue” this year, the highest rating on the district’s five-color scale.

Not counting the students who received the 630 extra passes purchased with the tax money, 2,565 high school students were eligible this year for Regional Transportation District bus passes, according to district officials. That’s up from 2,376 last year. In addition, nearly 5,000 high school students qualify for yellow bus service because they attend a school in an “enrollment zone,” which is essentially an enlarged boundary that contains several schools.

Boasberg said that while the district would like to provide transportation to even more students, it must balance spending money on buses with spending money in classrooms. DPS already spends $26 million of its nearly $1 billion budget on transportation, according to information provided to the school board. Even if it wanted to hire more drivers, district officials said they’re having a hard time finding them in a thriving economy; DPS is down 40 drivers this year.

To come up with a solution, Boasberg said the district must collaborate with the city and the Regional Transportation District, which has commissioned its own task force to come up with new pricing recommendations. DPS officials have been participating in that group.

“Ultimately, RTD has assets and abilities as a transportation entity to specialize in what they specialize in,” Boasberg said at Monday’s school board work session. “Our specialty is in educating students. The more we can be collaborative with RTD … the better.”

But advocates said participating in other agencies’ processes isn’t enough. DPS should be leading its own investigation into how to expand transportation options by gathering parents, students and community members to come up with ideas, they said.

“There have been lots of conversations but DPS hasn’t led any of them,” Samelson said.

Unlike other programs and initiatives funded by the tax increase and suggested by district staff, the transportation expansion proposal hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, he said.

“We’re trying to help the district increase access to schools for students but we feel pushback, we feel stonewalled, we feel like we have to argue our way into this premise that increased transportation is good for kids,” Mortimer said. “We just don’t understand it.”