DOWNTOWN — Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District officials are considering switching to district-wide fundraising, a move which proponents believe would cut to the roots of the achievement gap by evening up financial support for schools with higher populations of low-income students.

The idea, which is expected to go up before the Board of Education for discussion before the end of the year, is raising concerns amongst parents from schools with powerhouse Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs) that their effort and dollars will be diverted from their children’s schools in times of historic cuts to K through 12 education at the state level.

Right now, PTAs handle the fundraising for each school site, and, according to tax documents and school accountability reports, schools with higher percentages of low-income and minority students raise substantially less than schools with mostly white and Asian students.

In real terms, it means that schools with children that the state and federal governments have traditionally acknowledged need more educational support have PTAs that can pay for fewer instructional aides and targeted educational programs than their wealthier counterparts.

Proponents believe that disparity in programs available at each school site leads to the wide gap in test scores between minority and non-minority students.

SMMUSD received a failing grade from Education Trust-West for the spread, which showed a 124 point difference between the average white or Asian student and the average Latino student in the district on a statewide performance test.

The gap between majority students and either low-income or African American students was even greater.

“The model we’re working on right now, there are a lot of schools that don’t have the programs other schools have,” said Lori Whitesell, PTA president at Edison Language Academy, speaking as an individual.

In the 2010-11 school year, Edison’s student body was 72.1 percent Hispanic, and in 2009, its parents raised $167,899, making it the eighth highest fundraiser out of 13 elementary and middle schools.

“Programs equal opportunity, and opportunity equals achievement,” Whitesell said.

Equity Fund/Title 1

The disparity in fundraising between schools is a long-standing reality in Santa Monica and Malibu.

According to tax documents filed by the PTAs of each school site, the wealthier schools — Grant, Roosevelt and Franklin elementary schools in Santa Monica and Juan Cabrillo, Point Dume and Webster elementary schools in Malibu — have consistently raised between $250,000 and $500,000 for their school sites between 2002 and 2009.

Franklin Elementary holds the record with $864,767 reported in 2006.

In 2009, the last year for which information is available, Point Dume raised the most money with $570,470, of which it spent $534,443.

It also had the second smallest student body in the district. That penciled out to an additional $2,001.66 per child on top of money doled out by the district.

John Adams Middle School, on the other hand, ranged between $28,200 reported in 2003 to a high of $79,373 reported in 2009. In its most recent report, JAMS’ PTA spent an extra $72.48 per student.

The gap was only slightly smaller for Lincoln Middle School, McKinley Elementary, Will Rogers Learning Community and John Muir Elementary School.

In recognition of the north-south fundraising divide, former district Superintendent John Deasy worked to establish the Equity Fund in 2004 to help even the playing field between the schools.

PTAs were told that they could continue raising money for their school sites, but that 15 percent of anything spent would go into the Equity Fund. The money in that fund would then be divvied up between the schools based on need.

The move was controversial, with “have not” schools in support and “have” schools opposed, according to people who participated in the debate.

In the end, the board pushed it through. Last year, the Equity Fund gathered up around $300,000 for redistribution.

“It was our first effort in this direction,” said Jose Escarce, president of the SMMUSD Board of Education. Escarce, along with board members Maria Leon Vasquez and Oscar de la Torre were on the board and supported the Equity Fund.

“I think it’s been a very beneficial effort in that it’s provided hundreds of thousands of dollars that schools have used fruitfully to develop programs for students,” Escarce said. “Several years later, we’re living in a world of overall fewer resources.”

As state and federal support for public education dries up and fundraising becomes ever more important, it becomes critical for those dollars to go to programs for the entire district rather than specific sites, he said.

PTA responsibilities

The discussion of district-wide fundraising means reevaluating the role that SMMUSD PTAs play.

Ever more, PTAs are used as a fundraising crutch for schools looking to hold onto programs like arts and targeted literacy or math classes as well as personnel like school nurses.

Commitment letters issued from PTAs to the school district show hundreds of thousands of dollars promised each year to cover salaries and benefits for instructional aides and even a ceramics class.

(Editor’s note: A breakdown of those commitment letters from the last four years will be the subject of a future Daily Press article.)

The charge demonstrates the continuing evolution from PTA’s original role as an advocacy group to what it has become: Parents fighting for every dollar to make sure their child has access to the education they expect from public schools.

“It’s not your mother’s PTA,” said Sally Miller, PTA president at Will Rogers Learning Community.

Will Rogers falls into the category of “have not.” According to its 2009-10 accountability report, half of its students are Hispanic, 26 percent are learning English and 55 percent are socioeconomically disadvantaged.

For the past five years, Will Rogers’ PTA has raised between $57,000 and $67,000.

It’s impossible for the school’s PTA to raise money like the northern schools and, Miller opined, it isn’t their place to try.

“When you have school choice, it causes problems for schools that don’t have those resources,” Miller said. “It sets up a semi-private school that takes advantage of public school funding. I think it has gotten out of hand, and it’s not appropriate.”

Miller would like to see the major fundraising taken on by another organization at the district level, and let PTAs return to their original role of educating parents about key issues in schools and advocating for students’ needs at a state and federal level.

Only then could the gold standard of “program parity” be reached, meaning that every child in the district would have the same access to math, science, language and arts programs.

“Every kid’s day, whether you’re in Malibu or Will Rogers, ought to look the same,” said Whitesell, PTA president at Edison Language Academy.

Who’s on first?

But if PTAs don’t raise money for staff and programs, who would?

That’s the question facing SMMUSD’s new superintendent, Sandra Lyon.

At its Aug. 10 meeting, the Board of Education charged Lyon with the task of exploring how other districts across the state manage fundraising, and bringing back a recommendation on the best way for SMMUSD to move forward.

Since that evening, Lyon has been studying up on how other districts maximized the relationship between the PTA, the district and the local education foundations, nonprofit fundraising groups that tend to do district-wide fundraising.

What she’s found is a growing trend toward clearly defined fundraising roles for PTAs and education foundations that boils down to a simple maxim: stuff versus staff.

“The general rule is that PTAs don’t hire staff,” Lyon said. “They do here in Santa Monica-Malibu.”

While PTAs focus on site-specific staff, the Santa Monica Malibu Education Foundation made its mission district-wide programming.

Over the past 30 years, the foundation has championed numerous programs to support academics, arts and sports for all students in the district.

It hadn’t focused on fomenting deep fundraising capacity until 2010, when the Board of Education empowered the foundation to launch the Save Our Schools campaign, a 60-day effort that raised $1.5 million and saved 20 positions in the district.

The experience galvanized the organization, which launched a strategic planning process to evaluate how it could replicate that level of success, said Executive Director Linda Gross. It restructured, and brought on 40 new volunteers.

In recent weeks, the Education Foundation flexed its new muscles with the Santa Monica 5000, which raised $45,000 for sports and athletic programs.

The foundation’s role depends entirely on the Board of Education, and where the conversation leads when Lyon brings back her findings in coming weeks.

“I do not know if that’s where the board will go,” Gross said. “But I know through our strategic planning process, we have built the capacity to serve the community in that respect.”

The waiting game

Although district-wide fundraising has not yet come before the Board of Education, the PTA community is meeting the news with a mix of anticipation and consternation.

It rallied members of the Advocates for Malibu Public Schools, or AMPS, to call for representation on the Board of Education at its most recent meeting, and it was agendized by the PTA Council for discussion.

At present, it’s impossible to know if district-wide fundraising will be embraced by the full Board of Education, and if it is, what shape that will take, or how fast PTAs will be asked to transition away from the role to which they’re accustomed.

“It’s unnerving to know that the conversation is being had, and that we’re not at the table,” said Gerda Newbold, president of the PTA at Roosevelt Elementary.

This year, Roosevelt PTA committed to pay for a music center and third grade fine arts program, $89,000 in benefits and salary for instructional assistants, $23,000 for a half-time reading specialist, and over $37,000 for other programs including arts and a summer academic intervention.

Parents worry that under a district-wide fundraising model, those programs they’ve built and paid for will take a hit.

“I would get on board with this if I felt that our critical programs are not going to be hurt that help the disadvantaged children at our schools,” Newbold said. “That is the concern. How can we do it where we don’t lose?”

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