DISTRICTWIDE — The vast majority of the money raised by school-site Parent Teacher Associations gets spent on staff, either for special programs, like the arts, or teacher aides.

It’s a process that creates gaps between schools with the ability to raise more money than others.

That’s according to four years worth of commitment letters sent to the district by school-site PTAs between the 2008-09 and 2011-12 school years that show money promised for copy machines, field trips, programs and program personnel.

The topic of how much parents can fundraise for their neighborhood schools and where that money is spent has taken front seat in recent weeks as district officials research the concept of districtwide fundraising, a mechanism which could dramatically change what programs are available at schools throughout the district.

Although they are not a full accounting of PTA expenditures, commitment letters are the mechanism by which PTAs use their hard-won dollars to cover personnel costs like salaries and benefits. They’re also useful for equipment purchases, like those for a copy machine or classroom technology.

They can be written generally — in the 2009-10 school year, Grant Elementary paid out $125,000 for “instructional assistants and other instruction” — or for specific people.

Franklin Elementary School, for instance, consistently hired back the same people across the four years examined.

PTAs also pay for academic programming that wouldn’t be available otherwise through district funds, like extra music education, arts and science programs.

According to the commitment letters, schools with a greater fundraising ability tended to funnel a greater percentage of their cash into people than did the less wealthy schools.

SMMUSD’s four Title 1 schools — John Muir Elementary, McKinley Elementary, Will Rogers Learning Community and the Edison Language Academy — spent under $50,000 each on “personnel” costs in the current school year using PTA money.

That category included anything that directly related to a person or position, rather than specific academic or enrichment programs, which also come with personnel attached.

Spending on personnel at those schools has risen considerably in the last four years, but doesn’t come close to the $290,000 in personnel costs promised to the Point Dume Marine Science Academy in Malibu, nor $178,000 spent at Franklin Elementary.

In part, that discrepancy can be explained by the nature of Title 1 schools, which receive federal money to bolster education for socio-economically disadvantaged youth.

If 40 percent or more of a school’s student body qualifies as low-income, a school can be eligible to receive Title 1 funding.

According to SMMUSD officials, the district made a choice to focus that funding on the four elementary schools to try to target the money in an intensive way rather than spreading it through the district.

Those Title 1 dollars have to specifically target the education of low-income students, and can’t be spent on non-academic programs.

At Will Rogers Learning Community, Principal Steve Richardson uses Title 1 money to pay for instructional aides that other schools fund through their PTAs.

That’s good for Will Rogers which, according to tax documents, managed to raise $67,090 in the 2009 school year from its parents compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that wealthier, non-Title 1 schools raised.

With that budget, Will Rogers couldn’t pay for the teacher aides that other schools provide because people are expensive, Richardson said.

But while other schools use the aides as a supplement to an already-robust educational program, Will Rogers uses its aides to help bring disadvantaged students up to the same starting point as others.

“This is the murky part,” Richardson said. “To some degree, the perception is that you have Title 1 funds and we have PTA funds and it all evens out. But the purpose of Title 1 funds is to even the playing field.”

That advantage is dwindling. As state and federal budgets tighten, Title 1 money is becoming more scarce.

This year, for the first time, the Will Rogers PTA is discussing how it can pay for a software license for an instructional math program.

“As Title 1 funds get smaller and state distributions of funds per student get smaller, I have had to reply on the PTA more for monetary contributions directly related to academics,” Richardson said.

Unlike at other schools, that means Will Rogers has to sacrifice arts programs, like a popular dance class that had to be cut.

That is a common trend in schools across California, said Carol Kocivar, the California State PTA president.

“As the budget from the state has become worse and worse, there’s more pressure on the PTAs and other organizations to fill in the gaps,” Kocivar said. “We’ve seen throughout the state that PTAs are raising more money for things that are public responsibility. I always say the best fundraiser you can ever have is a line item in the budget that pays for things.”

District officials have set their sights on districtwide fundraising as a way to make sure that each school in the district has access to the same programs as every other school, regardless of the relative wealth of the student body.

That could eliminate the role of PTAs in providing money for people, instead pushing that burden onto the Santa Monica Malibu Education Foundation.

It seems some wealthier PTAs are willing to discuss the idea, which met a lot of resistance in a watered-down form when the district instituted the Equity Fund in 2004.

At the Oct. 20 Board of Education meeting, Roosevelt Elementary PTA President Gerda Newbold and Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein read a statement approved by the Roosevelt PTA leadership acknowledging the funding disparities and indicating their willingness to come to the table.

“We believe that the district should move quickly to establish a policy or policies that address, and effectively deal with, the achievement gap and the inequity in elementary school funding,” the statement read, in part.

Roosevelt, considered one of the well-off schools, purchased a $27,108 reading program, textbooks, a dance program, ceramics class, reading specialists and another $86,000 in instructional aides this school year, amongst other fine arts programs and professional development for staff.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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