Steve Richardson is willing to go great lengths to help his PTA raise funds for his students. In October, the principal sacrificed some dignity by dying his hair blue and kissing a pig, much to the delight of the student body at Will Rogers Learning Community. It was the result of a challenge he made to parents. Raise $30,000 and he would dye his hair or kiss the pig. Raise more and he would do both. The fund drive brought in over $36,000, one of the school’s most successful.

While impressive, Will Rogers and other elementary schools with a higher percentage of socioeconomically disadvantaged students have nowhere near the fundraising capability as those schools in more affluent neighborhoods in Santa Monica and Malibu. Just take a look at the numbers. Will Rogers, with 49.5 percent of its student body classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged, raised just over $67,000 in 2009-10, while Malibu’s Point Dume Marine Science Elementary School, with only 2 percent of students from low-income families, raised an impressive $570,470 during that same time frame.

There are several factors contributing to the disparity. One is the level of coordination and creativity exhibited by each school’s PTA. Those groups that are more organized and have parents who have the time and means to be engaged have a greater opportunity for success. Another factor is the number of students enrolled. The more students a school has, the greater the chances of more parents being involved. Connections with businesses and celebrities is also key, for they can donate time, talent, money or supplies.

But one factor that seems to matter most of all is how wealthy parents at each school are. It’s difficult to donate when you are struggling to keep the lights on. It’s tough to volunteer and strategize when both parents work, some more than one job. As a result, those schools with more socioeconomically disadvantaged students do not have the money to hire additional instructional aides for reading, science, art and music.

When such a difference in funds available for programs exists, particularly at the elementary school level, it essentially creates a two-tiered school system where students from lower-income neighborhoods are less likely to move up the social ladder. The system breeds inequity, particularly at the early stages of education when kids’ minds are ripe and ready to soak up knowledge. In turn it contributes to the achievement gap seen in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, a gap that members of the Board of Education have committed themselves to closing.

It’s that disparity in fundraising and the inequality in educational opportunities created by that generosity that has the school board and superintendent contemplating a switch to district-wide fundraising, a system where all schools would pool their resources together to give every student an equal opportunity to excel.

The Daily Press supports such a move. We feel that if this education community is committed to providing an equal opportunity for every child to succeed, then district-wide fundraising is a step in that direction, just as was voting for parcel and sales taxes to provide local funding for our public schools during a time of need, as well as the decision by the city councils of Santa Monica and Malibu to contribute General Fund monies to the SMMUSD as part of a facilities joint-use agreement. By sharing the wealth, Santa Monica and Malibu have helped create more opportunities for all and have made both communities better. With district-wide fundraising, parents will have another opportunity to build kids up.

Details of how the plan will work have yet to be determined. The school board will hear comments from the public and make a decision on whether or not to move forward with the idea at the end of the month. If it chooses this route, the superintendent will create a committee comprised of parents, teachers and other stakeholders to develop a plan that will incorporate the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation, a nonprofit that has been directing money to schools since 1982 and was the force, along with dedicated volunteers, behind the Save Our Schools campaign, which in 2010 raised nearly $1.6 million in only 60 days. That was a district-wide effort, and it proved to be a success. There’s no reason to believe that success cannot be matched again and surpassed under a new district-wide fundraising plan.

The framework for that plan must address concerns raised by opponents who believe it strips away autonomy and discourages parents from giving. There are also concerns about transparency and accountability.

The superintendent promises that any plan would still allow individual school sites to spend money where they choose, and parents will still be able to donate books, paper and other supplies directly to their kids’ school and fund field trips. What the plan would do is create an even playing field for all students by identifying core programs that work and funding them. Principals and PTAs would then be able to use their pot of money raised and distributed by the Ed Foundation for extras.

As for the Ed Foundation, the school board must craft a contract that calls for full-disclosure of funds raised and spent, salaries paid to staff and a promise to incorporate more parents into the process.

Some say district-wide fundraising will exacerbate tension between Malibu parents and the district. We hope that isn’t the case. This move has the potential to heal old wounds and create stronger bonds between Malibu and Santa Monica instead of being used as ammunition for a district split. Parents should embrace this opportunity for input. While it is comprised of two cities, this is still a unified school district, not a loosely connected collection of individual schools. Let’s rally behind this and remember that it’s not about us against them. It’s about doing what’s best for all of our kids.

We’ll be there monitoring the process to make sure it is inclusive, transparent and that district administrators, the school board and the Ed Foundation are being held accountable.

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