SMMUSD HDQTRS — The Santa Monica-Malibu Board of Education will hold the second of two meetings tonight to hear public discussion on the topic of districtwide fundraising, a controversial policy which would fundamentally alter the way parents provide supplemental money to their children’s schools.

At the heart of the conversation is the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1982 with the mission to provide “equity and access to a vibrant educational experience for all students.”

The foundation is also the body proposed by district staff to take on the central role in a districtwide fundraising model, making it the exclusive source of outside funds for staff and staff development.

Opponents question the Education Foundation’s ability to take on the task of districtwide fundraising, which would involve far greater sums than the $600,000 to $800,000 pots the foundation currently pulls in each year.

They hold that the cost of the foundation dropping the ball could be the decimation of programs that parents have worked hard to build up.

“The (Ed Foundation) is an amazing organization that has been a life-saver in the case of (Save Our Schools), as an example,” Seth Jacobson, a Malibu parent and member of Advocates for Malibu Schools, wrote in an e-mail. “However, if it is to take on this very important task, there must be significant changes to the organization and how it operates.”

Jacobson said that the foundation adds too little money to its various endowments to justify the 13 percent of its budget spent on administrative and fundraising costs.

In a speech before the PTA Council Tuesday, Gross called SMMEF “the most operationally efficient Education Foundation in Southern California,” and promised the leadership that if the board decides to put programmatic fundraising on the foundation’s shoulders, it could deliver.

At present, PTAs at each school site provide the district with money specifically to hire staff to bolster the educational programs at each school.

Because of the diversity within the district, fundraising capacity can vary greatly from school to school, leading to substantial inequities that negatively impact the education of socioeconomically disadvantaged students, proponents of the districtwide model say.

Empowering the Education Foundation to raise money specifically for staff and programming would ensure that each child in the district would have equal access to a high-quality education, supporters of districtwide fundraising said.

Linda Gross, executive director of the Education Foundation, said with a few tweaks her organization will be up to the task.

The foundation recently completed a strategic visioning process, which it presented to the Board of Education in September, before the matter of districtwide fundraising was raised.

During that reorganization, the foundation brought in 40 new volunteers of various professional backgrounds and hired a part-time public information officer to strengthen its connections with the community and boost fundraising.

Already, the beefed up foundation launched an event for its athletics endowment, its annual fund campaign, began exploring prospects for a major gift campaign and updated its financial accounting policies and procedures, Gross told the PTA Council Tuesday night.

If the Board of Education chooses to make the Education Foundation the main fundraising organization for the district, still more changes would be necessary, Gross said.

“We’re going to have to revisit that,” Gross said. “There would be more activity, and it would be great to bring on a development officer to help lead successful campaigns and coordinate.”

The foundation’s role in the proposal, which would limit PTA spending to supplies and restricts corporate gifts over $2,500, has been met with some confusion, Gross said.

The Education Foundation would be responsible only for collecting the money, not distributing it or determining where it would be spent.

That’s different than how PTAs operate now, by assessing the desires at their school sites and trying to raise money to pay for them.

Not only would the Education Foundation be raising money for all schools, its team thinks it can outstrip current fundraising levels within a few years, Gross said.

As of 2009, the last year for which tax documents are available, PTAs for district elementary and middle schools raised a cumulative $3.3 million.

That does not include high school PTAs, nor does it include various funds like the Malibu Shark Fund, which raises hundreds of thousands of dollars specifically for sports in Malibu.

“I think we could raise $6 to $8 million all together,” Gross said. “That would depend on the parents.”

The foundation already has one hugely successful campaign under its belt, namely the 2010 Save Our Schools drive which raised roughly $1.6 million in 60 days to save 20 positions in the district.

While detractors have applauded that effort, they say it’s a one-off that the organization may not be able to replicate.

Working elsewhere

For proof of longevity, district officials and foundation staff point to other districts that use the districtwide fundraising model with a foundation at the helm.

One such body, the Manhattan Beach Unified School District, made the switch 10 years ago. Fundraising has consistently increased, said Susan Warshaw, executive director of the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation.

“The Education Foundation said we’re going to pay for the positions and PTAs are going to fund the things on campus,” Warshaw said. “It didn’t prevent them from fundraising, or adding special things. It’s kind of getting the best of both worlds.”

There are some major differences in the Manhattan Beach model and that proposed by SMMUSD.

The Manhattan Beach foundation is the only source of outside funding in the district — it has no parcel tax or sales tax to help bolster programs. Although the schools did fundraise at different levels, the disparity was not so great as what is seen in SMMUSD, Warshaw said.

The biggest difference, however, may be in how the district chooses to spend the money gathered by the foundation.

In Manhattan Beach, the money buys the same program for all schools. SMMUSD proposes providing resources that then buy site-specific programs in order to maintain the individuality of each school.

Success in fundraising will be based on teamwork, Gross said.

“We hope, should the school board pass the new policy, that every one of you will partner with the Ed Foundation to create the success we know is possible,” Gross told the PTA Council.

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