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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, December 05, 2001

Editorial: School-based fund-raising Editorial: School-based fund-raising (December 05, 2001)must be curbed

Palo Alto school board struggles for direction and focus in resolving school fund-raising inequities

Are we all part of one unified school district, with shared values and aspirations for our children?

Or are we merely a loose confederation of individual school communities that are free to operate up to the limits of their available parent affluence, time and energy?

Although school board members and the public danced around the issue, those are the fundamental questions facing our community as the inequities between individual elementary schools in the Palo Alto school district finally get addressed.

There are those who would prefer the issue would just quietly go away, because embodied in it are emotional undercurrents and the seeds of controversy. School board members sense this discomfort, and they shared their concerns at the study session.

But they must now assert the leadership for which they were elected and adopt clear policies aimed at bringing an end to the inequities between schools before the equity issue grows even more serious. Most simply stated, the underlying issue centers on the fact that some neighborhoods in town have a greater capacity for making significant donations to schools than do others, and that the pattern of independent PTA fund raising at each school that has emerged in recent years (referred to as "site-based fund raising") reflects those differences.

PTA leaders in the wealthier neighborhoods find it much easier -- and a lot more fun -- to raise big bucks for added staff and programs than do PTA leaders in other parts of town, where they are asking people who are more financially constrained and who don't have the time to organize ambitious fundraising events.

Almost everyone acknowledges there is a fairness problem involved in one school having more classroom aides or technology assets than another. But site-based fund-raising advocates argue that parents are likely to be more generous when giving to something that will directly benefit their children's school -- thus benefiting their own children -- rather than a more amorphous district-wide gift benefiting all kids.

Whether they are right or wrong in that assessment shouldn't be the issue. We cannot operate our public schools as if they were individual private schools that can go out and tap into the affluence of their parents, and then put that affluence to work at one school when other schools have fewer such opportunities.

Ever more ambitious fundraising goals have become the norm at schools such as Walter Hays, which leads the district in money raised from parents, and courageous and bold action is needed by the school board to bring fairness to the funding of individual schools.

First, the school board needs to adopt a clear policy of limiting site-based fundraising to a specific amount based on the total number of students. Any funds raised over that amount would be increasingly diverted into a district-wide fundraising pool.

For example, half of anything raised over $200 per student could be allocated to the district pool, and two-thirds of anything over $300 could go to the district. An absolute cap of $400 per student might be adopted.

Second, the board should convert the "scrip" program to a district fundraising tool and implement a major, ongoing campaign to sign up non-parents and those who work in Palo Alto into the program. Scrip, especially now that it is completely automated and requires only that people register their credit card numbers, is a tremendous untapped source of funds that requires no actual contribution on the part of the "donor."

Finally, the board must commit itself to funding, through district fund-raising efforts and the general fund, a per-student distribution to each school so all schools have similar resources with which to educate our children.

Palo Alto parents enroll their children in our schools because of the excellence of our teachers and the education offered to our kids. It is wonderful that so many parents have the means to make substantial financial contributions in support of the schools and their children.

But we must adhere to and embrace the values that gave rise to the public education system: that all kids are entitled to the same opportunities.

It's bad enough that we are so far from this goal when one compares across district and state boundaries. We must not perpetuate such inequities within our own small school district by failing to address this fundraising problem.


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