Not always a cakewalk

As New York City starts collecting data on inequities in PTA fundraising, the search is on for potential solutions

PHOTO: Chalkbeat photo
Families from Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn hold a bake sale.

When Susan Moesker’s son started sixth grade five years ago at Boerum Hill School for International Studies in Brooklyn, there was no active PTA. The school, she said, “has a wonderful and diverse student body,” which Moesker loved, but not all of the parents could afford to donate extra time and money to the school.

“We have families who have tremendous ability to give, and we have families who have no ability to give whatsoever,” she said.

So Moesker and other parents who could banded together, and through bake sales and chili cook-offs, raised about $800 that first year. The group stayed active, grew an executive board and reported $6,585 in revenue in 2016, according to its latest tax return available on Guidestar. But while the momentum was upward, the receipts remained modest.

So a couple of years ago, the PTA decided to spring for a gala — the type of fundraiser you might see at nearby P.S. 261, which raised almost $900,000 in 2016, or at P.S. 58, which raised $1.4 million, through a combination of donations, grants, and services parents pay for at the school, according to Guidestar.

Moesker’s PTA was able to secure a venue for free, and the gala and silent auction raked in about $36,000 last year. With the help of corporate matching of some parents’ direct donations, the PTA expects to pull in $83,580 this year, according to its online budget projection. While this is significantly more than the average $1,000 city PTAs raise, according to one city official, it’s still well below the million-dollar budgets of the richest PTAs.

It’s natural for parents to want to fill in perceived gaps in resources in their children’s classrooms. But since many public school parents can’t afford to donate large sums of money, the powerhouse PTAs are contributing to the already vast divide between wealthy and needy schools — a longstanding problem that is coming under new scrutiny.

Last month, the New York City Council passed a bill requiring the Department of Education to publish by December 2019 an annual report on how much each parent-teacher association or parent association is raising.

Although the education department already collects this information through each school’s principal, it is not posted anywhere for the public to see, says Councilman Mark Treyger, who sponsored the bill and is the chairman of the council’s education committee.

The bill requires the department to post the report on its website, deliver it to the council’s speaker and provide demographic information about the student population — race, ethnicity, English learner status — at each PTA’s school.

By making the data more accessible, Treyger says, he hopes to launch an informed conversation about how the city might address the “glaring disparities” that arise from the PTA Haves and Have Nots.

“I don’t believe your zip code should dictate the opportunities you receive,” he said in a recent interview.

What other cities are doing

Treyger’s bill isn’t the first time New York — or other cities — have wrestled with questions of fairness surrounding PTA funds, which schools may use to pay assistant teachers, fund electives or sponsor after-school programs.

In 1997, for example, parents at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village learned that one of the school’s teaching positions was being eliminated. Parents rallied, raising $36,000 almost overnight, nearly enough to cover the $46,000-salary of the teacher being ousted. Then schools Chancellor Rudy Crew blocked the parents’ effort and ordered a moratorium on similar PTA moves, saying it wasn’t fair to schools that didn’t have the same resources.

Today, regulations set by the Chancellor govern how parent associations can operate, including what they can spend their money on and what financial disclosures they have to make. For example, PTAs can’t pay for additional teachers in core subjects.

But inequities persist. At P.S. 334 The Anderson School on the Upper West Side, the PTA is already advertising and soliciting donations for its 27th annual auction next March. Suggestions for donated items range from $25 gift cards to $10,000 vacations. In 2015, the PTA reported revenue of close to $1 million, according to Guidestar and was ranked in 2013 as the country’s 10th richest PTA in a report by the Center for American Progress, a progressive advocacy group.

The parent organization at P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side showed revenue of more than $900,000 in its latest filing and is the 16th richest in the country, according to the same report. Its website suggests an annual donation of $1,200 — though also states “any amount your family is able to give” is welcome. The money helps fund assistant teachers for every classroom, performing arts programs, school-wide supplies, special programs and staff development among other expenses, according to the website’s breakdown.

To address this disparity, Councilman Stephen T. Levin loosely floated the idea, at the hearing on Treyger’s City Council bill, of a progressive taxation system, in which PTAs or PAs might donate a chunk of their raised revenue above a certain level — such as $100,000 or $200,000 — but didn’t say exactly where the money would go. Levin acknowledged, however, that such a tax would be “a pretty serious step” and wondered what other cities are doing.

The answer is that some are already experimenting with ways to make PTA giving more equitable. In the Santa Monica-Malibu school system, parents can donate directly to their schools if it’s to beautify the campus or sponsor field trips. But if parents want to pay for teachers’ salaries or school-day programs, they must also donate to another pool of money that’s then redistributed to needier schools.

In Portland, a central foundation collects one-third of the proceeds any school raises above  $10,000. So for every dollar past this mark, 33 cents go toward equity grants that are delivered to the district’s under-resourced schools.  

It’s not clear in New York City whether rules governing PTAs and PAs would permit donations to other schools or efforts to compel gifts to other organizations. To be legal, PTAs would likely have to adopt clear disclaimers, stating if or when donations could be redirected, said Cliff Perlman, an attorney with New York-based firm Perlman and Perlman, which specializes in non-profit legal matters.

“You’re giving money to an entity and expecting” it to be used “a certain way,” Perlman said. The recipient “is supposed to honor that intent or not take the money.”

Others worry parents will be less inclined to donate if the money isn’t going to benefit their children, resulting in a smaller philanthropic pie for everyone.

And in Malibu, fury over the district’s plan to share PTA funds between the Santa Monica and Malibu schools fueled a desire among some Malibu parents to separate from the district. It still includes both communities but has agreed to establish separate fundraising models.

A voluntary approach — for now

Ben Arthur, a former parent at P.S. 87, the William T. Sherman School on the Upper West Side, said the “blamey-shamey” critiques that wealthier PTAs sometimes weather are unfair.

“These are rational people who are being faced with schools that are being underfunded comically, criminally, by the state,” he said. “It’s really not the fault of P.S. 87 parents that they’re being put in a position to fill these massive gaps.” In 2016, the school’s PTA pulled in more than $1.8 million in combined donations and programs that parents directly pay for, according to Guidestar.

Abigail Edgecliffe-Johnson, another parent at the school, says its auction and fairs are so successful because parents not only can donate more money than parents at other schools but also have the time to devote to planning events and have access to high-value items to put up for bid. Parents who work on Broadway might donate tickets to hot shows, and Arthur, through his connections to the music industry, once secured a three-hour recording session at a local studio for auction.

At the same time, “It is not fair that we are all in public schools, but our school has the ability to fill those shortfalls,” Edgecliffe-Johnson said.

So in 2015, she and Arthur co-founded School 2 School, which raises money for schools in District 7, a needy district in the Bronx. Last May, a Bronx elementary school teacher turned to School 2 School when she needed art supplies for her students. She wanted them to illustrate stories they’d written, but she didn’t have sketch pads, crayons and glue sticks for her students to use. She filed a $690 request on School 2 School, and four months later it was granted, along with another $122 to help finance other activities.

School 2 School has raised $18,814 and funded 40 projects over the past three years, according to its website.

“Your generosity provided my students with essential resources to inspire them to do their best writing,” she wrote in a thank-you comment on the fundraising page.

But some contend that concern about PTAs is just another way to avoid addressing more fundamental inequities and divides.

Marco Battistella, a public school parent who just finished a two-year term as co-chair of the Chancellor Parent Advisory Council, said that the composition of the city’s PTAs and their ability to fundraise usually come down to a school’s demographics, and ultimately to economic integration in schools.

“Yes, there are in fact some schools that raise significant amounts of money and many schools —a majority of schools — they raise very little money,” Battistella said. But “the way to go,” he said, “is to make sure that the demographics in the school are more equally distributed.”

“To be blunt,” he said in written testimony over Treyger’s bill, “no number of bake sales will ever cancel the ill effects of continued systemic underfunding of NYC’s public schools by the state government.”  

Changing course

After pressure from school board members, University of Memphis middle school drops its academic requirement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University of Memphis' elementary, Campus School, is one of the highest achieving schools in the state.

Leaders of a popular elementary school known for its high academic performance are changing the entrance requirements at a proposed middle school in hopes of creating a more diverse student body.

After the Shelby County Schools board raised concerns that the University of Memphis’ plans would continue a pattern of student enrollment from its elementary school, Campus School, that is mostly white, university leaders said last week they would drop the academic requirement for the middle school.

Most Memphis students do not meet state standards for learning. Under the revised proposal, students would need satisfactory behavior records and fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals.

In addition, the school is meant to be a learning lab for teachers earning their degrees. School leaders hope these teachers will eventually return to the Memphis school system to work with children who live in poverty. But currently, the student body doesn’t reflect the population school leaders want to serve.

“We need to make sure that new teachers are getting everything they need. That way you then can learn how to be successful in a diverse community,” board member Miska Clay Bibbs said.

White students made up two-thirds of the elementary school in 2017, the highest percentage in the district. Only 8 percent of the students lived in poverty — the lowest in the district. By comparison, more than half of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty while only 8 percent are white.

The Memphis district has added more speciality schools in recent years to attract and retain high-achieving students, including white students, who might otherwise choose a private school or schools in the surrounding suburbs. Campus School is one that attracts a lot of white families.

It wasn’t always like that, board member Michelle Robinson McKissack said. She and other board members urged university leaders to do more intentional outreach to the surrounding neighborhood that would have priority in admissions.

“It’s surprising to me that it did seem to be more diverse when I was a child going to Campus in the mid-70s than today,” she said. “And I want to ensure that University Middle looks like Campus looked when I was going to school there.”

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in the district. Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows the University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University Middle would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

Paul Little and his wife chose their house because of its proximity to Campus School. If the university’s middle school had been open, he would have enrolled his oldest daughter there. He considered other public options, but ultimately decided on an all-girls private school.

“For a long time, I was against private schools in general because if people with high academic achievers pull their kids out of public school, you’ve left a vacuum,” he said.

Little, a White Station High School graduate, disagrees with the assertion that Campus School is not diverse, citing several international students who are children of University of Memphis faculty.

At a recent school meeting, “when I looked out over the cafeteria, I saw a lot of diversity there… That’s never been a concern for me,” he said. He said he was encouraged by the university’s outreach plans “to make the school as diverse as possible.”

Board members are expected to discuss the contract with University of Memphis on Tuesday night, vote the following week, and then open online applications to the school Jan. 30. The school would open in August with sixth-graders with plans to add one grade each year after that.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers.

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.