ROOSEVELT ELEMENTARY — As almost any advice columnist will tell you, communication and transparency are critical to a functional relationship, particularly when one or both partners has control of the family purse strings.

The same, apparently, is true of Parent Teacher Associations, Education Foundations and the school districts they serve.

Approximately 80 members of the Santa Monica-Malibu school community gathered at Roosevelt Elementary School to hear exactly that from representatives of four school districts in different stages of the tumultuous transition in fundraising that fundamentally changes the rules on how school programs and supplies are funded.

The forum was meant to give local parents and school officials access to real, live district-wide fundraising survivors, said Rochelle Fanali, part of the team that put the event together.

“We asked these folks to come and share their experiences and let people take from those experiences what they may, and what they felt was valuable,” Fanali said.

The model was seemingly straight forward. In the interest of equity, Education Foundations would take on the big dollar fundraising to provide similar programs throughout the schools in the district while PTAs could continue raising money for “stuff” for specific sites, like classroom supplies and field trips.

With the “what” and “why” identified, it was a matter of “how.”

The switch from school-site fundraising run primarily by parent groups to a district-wide model with the Education Foundation in the driver’s seat was taken on in concept by the Santa Monica-Malibu Board of Education in November after a series of contentious meetings that resulted in an end goal but no clear path on how to get there.

There was no defined fundraising target, and parents of wealthier schools remained unconvinced that the Education Foundation, which raised less money per year than some school sites, could be the entity that successfully carried programs for the whole district.

Saturday’s forum, which included representatives of Parent Teacher Association and Education Foundation leaders from Palo Alto, Irvine, Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach, was meant to show that not only was the transition possible, there was no “right way” to accomplish it.

For all but Beverly Hills, which is only just beginning to put the program in place, creating a balance between the Education Foundation and PTA groups resulted in higher fundraising by giving clear direction to parents and businesses about what the money would go toward and who would benefit from it.

Multiple requests from the various school sites and the foundations scared off major donors, who noticed a lack of professionalism and seeming confusion, said Elaine Hahn, the president of the Palo Alto Education Foundation board.

“It was like a shoot out at the OK Corral,” Hahn said. “With everyone asking for money, donors got confused.”

With professional fundraisers and clear guidelines in place, the Palo Alto foundation saw its donations swell from $100,000 per year to $3.4 million. Manhattan Beach had similarly dramatic results, and its donations have continued to rise.

The first year after districtwide fundraising was put in place, donations jumped from $404,314 to $1.9 million. Last year, they raised $4.6 million for school programs.

They’ve managed to do that without any formal agreement with their parent groups or district, unlike Santa Monica-Malibu which is in the process of creating a contract between the district and its foundation.

“There’s no MOU, board policy or mandate,” said Ellen Rosenberg, president of the Manhattan Beach School Board. “It works on a handshake.”

That relationship evolved over the course of 10 years, with parent buy-in to the point that the PTAs gave the foundation seed money from their reserves to jumpstart the first year.

That wasn’t the case in Palo Alto, which did an abrupt shift in policy and left it to a decentralized band of mini-foundations to pick up the pieces.

Barb Mitchell, a school board member in Palo Alto, was an outspoken critic of what she considered a “reckless” policy change. Parent groups were out-raising the education foundation by a factor of 10 to one, and there was no plan in place to keep programs from slipping under the new direction.

“There was a lot of distrust of the district, which didn’t seem interested in the outcome,” Mitchell said. “We played by the rules, and were following the rules, and this was threatening precious programs. There was a pervasive sense that this was going to level down.”

Local opponents of the new policy expressed similar reservations during the contentious debate last fall.

Building trust back between the groups is essential, and requires constant communication between the three major actors. That took the form of board positions for PTA members on the Education Foundation in some cases, and site representation for the foundation in others.

District-wide fundraising still concerns many members of the parent community used to giving money to their specific school sites and who believe that the disparities between parent fundraising per child (which can vary by over $2,000) are simply too great to overcome without hurting programs at wealthy schools.

The forum was not meant to change their minds, Fanali said.

“I hope that for those folks who came with an open mind, but who had legitimate concerns and fears, the path forward was a little illuminated in hearing the experience of others who went through the same kind of transition and with the same concerns,” Fanali said.

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