Franklin Elementary School

A controversial donation from Franklin Elementary School’s parent teacher association to the local education foundation has led to the involvement of the state PTA and a call for increased transparency at the site level.

The six-figure gift from the Montana Avenue school comes as the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation attempts to close its fundraising gap with about five weeks remaining. The nonprofit organization was more than $700,000 short of its $2.5-million goal for programming as of earlier this month.

SMMEF recently announced that it had received a $200,000 matching gift from Franklin’s PTA to support a variety of programs across the Santa Monica-Malibu school district. Half of the matching funds will be put towards the foundation’s annual drive, while the other $100,000 will be directed to the SMMEF endowment.

The donation followed talks among Franklin’s PTA about how to spend money from its $500,000 surplus. The site group has an annual operating budget and an emergency reserve as well as a surplus fund, which officials said was left over from when it had to account for some staff salaries.

Franklin parent leaders said they hope the donation will prevent SMMUSD from having to cut arts education, instructional assistants, enrichment grants and other SMMEF-funded programming.

“We have heard again and again from our parents, our teachers, our administration and our site governance council how important these programs are to Franklin,” site PTA presidents Samira Poulos and Megan Histand wrote in a letter to the campus community. “By making the $200,000 donation, and offering it as a matching gift, our community hopes to inspire others across the District to dig deep and minimize program reductions for our kids.”

Poulos and Histand did not respond to requests for comment.

Some parents at the school have questioned the validity of the donation and decried the politics behind it. Franklin parent Sean Daly said not enough was done by PTA site leaders to inform families about the surplus and the gift to the foundation, which some believe underscores a school PTA climate that avoids open communication and debate.

“This is not about being against SMMEF or the district,” he said. “This is about the process and the way this unit is operating and representing the families that make up our school.”

In response to a Daily Press inquiry, state PTA officials said they had been made aware of concerns regarding Franklin’s PTA but declined to comment on the situation.

“To honor the confidentiality of all parties involved and to reserve judgement while the process moves forward, we can’t provide additional comments or details at this time,” communications director Michelle Eklund said in a statement.

Starting April 25, Franklin PTA leaders began informing parents via email about a May 12 meeting that would feature “robust discussion” about the school’s surplus fund and a possible donation to SMMEF.

A vote in favor of a $180,000 donation to the foundation at the May 12 meeting followed a March presentation to site PTA leaders by Duncan Rolph, a Franklin parent who also serves as SMMEF’s treasurer. The group had contributed $20,000 to the fundraiser earlier this school year.

Daly, who believes the donation was orchestrated ahead of time, said he was turned away when he asked to join the “spend-down” committee to determine how to spend the surplus money. He then made it known that he was interested in attending the committee meeting to observe, but he said he was told it was closed. And he said he was met with “radio silence” when he asked for the meeting’s minutes.

“This was not something they were forthcoming about,” he said. “I want to see them have to disclose this stuff to everybody. They only told us what they wanted to tell us.”

A little more than half of Franklin families had contributed to the SMMEF fundraiser as of Monday, according to the school’s PTA. The deadline is June 30.

jeff@www.smdp.com