Stephenie Falcone’s children attend two Denver schools just a mile apart, but when it comes to fundraising power, the differences are vast.

The contrast was particularly stark on Tuesday, December 8.

At Gilpin Montessori that afternoon, parents and students scraped together $300 by selling nut-free zucchini bread, red velvet cookies and bagels during the school’s “Winter Wonderland” concert. Nearly three-quarters of the school’s students come from low-income families.

On the very same day, a parent-teacher group at Polaris at Ebert Elementary, a gifted and talented magnet school with few poor students, raised $14,400 through a direct giving campaign associated with Colorado Gives Day.

The gap between the two schools’ fundraising tallies will likely exceed $100,000 by the end of the year—with Gilpin’s parents covering expenses like books, soccer T-shirts and field trips while Polaris parents raise enough to cover teacher or paraprofessional salaries.

The disparity between the two schools is hardly unique. The school fundraising playing field has always been uneven—reflecting the socioeconomic status of each school’s population—so the same story plays out across Denver and the state.

But observers say it’s gotten worse in recent years as state education cuts have forced more expenses onto the shoulders of Colorado parents—in the form of additional fees and ever-increasing fundraising goals. While high-powered parent groups work mightily to compensate for slashed funding, many schools slog along with low-dollar butter braid sales. And so the divide grows.

"You’re dropping ice cubes into boiling water and it’s better, but as long as the source of problem is getting worse you just cannot keep up."Lisa Weil, executive director, Great Education Colorado

“This is the state not fulfilling the obligation to our kids,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a group that advocates for improved state education funding.

Colorado ranked 43 among states and Washington, DC for per-pupil education funding, according to Education Week’s 2015 Quality Counts report, a wide-ranging look at education trends.

Weil likened the growing fundraising burden to a frog in boiling water—with the water heating so gradually, there’s no sudden sense of danger.

“Parents need to realize that the water has been boiling for a while.”

With every infusion of fundraising cash, she said, “You’re dropping ice cubes into boiling water and it’s better, but as long as the source of problem is getting worse you just cannot keep up.”

Efforts exist to pump up low-income schools’ fundraising muscle or share fundraising proceeds among schools, but they’re not widespread.

As a parent of children at two very different schools, Falcone doesn’t fault Polaris parents for their fundraising prowess, but wishes more could be done to close the gap.

At Gilpin, she said, raising big bucks is like “chipping away at a giant glacier with a spoon.”

The fortunate few

A scan of Guidestar’s database of nonprofit financial reports reveals that more than a half-dozen Colorado PTAs or PTOs—most in Denver—reported income of $200,000 or more in 2013. At least a dozen more reported more than $100,000.

“I don’t blame them,” said Shawna Fritzler, a Jeffco parent and treasurer of the Colorado PTA. “I want to do the best for my school, too. But at the same time, I hate creating that inequity.”

Slavens, Steele, Bromwell, Westerly Creek, Lowry, Bill Roberts, Cory, Swigert and University Park are among the highest fundraising schools in Denver, according to Guidestar. There are also several high-grossing schools outside the city, though their fundraising proceeds tend to be somewhat lower than Denver’s top tier.

"I want to do the best for my school, too. But at the same time, I hate creating that inequity."Shawna Fritzler, Colorado PTA treasurer

At many higher-income schools, parents have the time and know-how to organize galas, wine-tastings and auctions. They may be able to line up lucrative sponsorships or secure big-ticket auction items—things like week-long Mexican getaways, autographed sports memorabilia or limousine outings.

Many also have the means to attend ticketed fundraisers and contribute generously to their schools’ direct giving campaigns.

But tapping parents in the same way at Gilpin and many other district schools is unrealistic.

“Our school has working parents, single parents, grandparents raising their grandchildren,” said Jenn Koelliker, who has three children at Gilpin and a baby at home. “We don’t have stay-at-home moms with middle-class backgrounds like myself going out and using their free time to raise money.”

A contribution from every family

Slavens in southeast Denver, reported earning $260,000 from six fundraising events in 2013—$187,000 of that from an auction, according to IRS documents.

The K-8 school, where just 8 percent of students are eligible for free or discounted meals, clearly communicates its expectation that families contribute to the “culture of giving,” stating on its website, “We encourage parents to give of their time, money and talent every year…Our goal is to achieve 100% participation.”

The school also gives back to the community—donating $5,000 annually to the Denver Public Schools Foundation, providing holiday gifts to families at nearby Ellis Elementary and facilitating student-led fundraisers for charities such as Ronald McDonald House.

Principal Kurt Siebold acknowledged that Slavens is among the fortunate few, but said even with the PTA’s ambitious fundraising efforts the school isn’t staffed as well as it was nine years ago when he started there.

“I’ve had to tighten the belt in the whole school budget,” he said.

He said the problem is even greater for schools in the middle of the socioeconomic pack—the ones that don’t pack a hard fundraising punch but don’t receive federal Title 1 funds earmarked for schools with large low-income populations.

Mark Ferrandino, Denver Public Schools’ Chief Financial Officer, agreed and said that such schools can get access to a special $8 million pot of district money called “budget assistance.”

That funding is generally doled out in $75,000-$120,000 chunks, depending on the school’s needs, he said.

Lack of transparency

There’s not much transparency in the school fundraising world. Most parent groups operate in relative seclusion, with record-keeping typically left to volunteers.

While Guidestar provides IRS records for PTA chapters or similar parent groups, they are sometimes out-of-date or incomplete. Some parent groups don’t submit them at all.

The state education department doesn’t track school fundraising either. School districts may track the money to some extent, but it’s not typically accessible to the public.

In response to a question from Chalkbeat about school-by-school fundraising totals, Denver Public Schools spokesman Will Jones wrote via email that it would take 80 to 100 hours to audit the accounts where schools’ fundraising proceeds are held.

But most people aren’t clamoring for such information anyway.

In addition, many don’t understand how state education funding impacts the school fundraising landscape, said Jonna Levine, public policy director for Colorado PTA.

A lot of people don’t “pay attention to what’s going on and what creates that fundraising hole.”

Cupcakes for sale

Back in December, three Gilpin fifth-graders helped man the bake sale table in the school’s foyer. Cookies were two for 50 cents and a large heart-shaped brownie was going for $10. Hot coffee and cocoa were available for a donation.

Eymi Velazquez, center right, takes money from a Gilpin Montessori parent in December. Velazequez helped raise money for her classroom's pets.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Eymi Velazquez, center right, takes money from a Gilpin Montessori parent in December. Velazequez helped raise money for her classroom’s pets.

The students were raising money to care for their classroom pets—lizards and iguanas.

While hundreds of parents flowed in and out of the auditorium, few stopped to buy treats. Parent Iema Velazquez, who supervised the students, said most customers were parents who’d baked or donated items for the sale.

“They’re the same ones who buy,” she said with a shrug.

At a more affluent school, collecting money for pet supplies would be an easier lift, Koelliker said.

“Normally a room parent would say, ‘Hey, everybody give me $5.’ That doesn’t work in our school,” she said.

The same is true across town at Place Bridge Academy, where 95 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals and many are refugees from war-torn countries.

"Normally a room parent would say, ‘Hey, everybody give me $5.’ That doesn’t work in our school."Jenn Koelliker, Gilpin parent

Parents there don’t organize any school fundraisers. Instead, staff members spearhead the annual candy sale, which reaps about $2,500 for the school.

Principal Brenda Kazin said she’d like to see more money coming in, especially to help with after-school busing costs. But aside from applying for grants, there’s not a lot she can do.

“I just live with it and I do what I can to make sure the children get something from the extra money that we have,” she said.

Paying for staff

Financial documents for schools that routinely raise $100,000 or more a year reveal that many are using the money to pay for staff salaries—allowing them to lower staff-student ratios, give teachers more planning time or offer instruction that might not otherwise be available.

For example, fundraising by the Polaris PTO this year helped pay for two teachers, according to the group’s minutes. The PTO’s statement on the Colorado Gives website says fundraising money helps provide aides in every classroom, a full-time librarian and full-time art, music and physical education teachers.

The same website shows that at Steele Elementary in the affluent Washington Park neighborhood, the PTA pays for paraprofessionals or interns in every classroom and two part-time intervention teachers.

At Lowry Elementary, a more mixed-income school in the upscale Lowry development, the PTO helps pay for additional paraprofessionals, a gifted and talented teacher, a full-time intervention teacher and a humanities facilitator.

To experts, recurring expenses such as staff salaries shouldn’t fall to parents. They’re basics that should be covered by state per-pupil funding.

“You never want to fundraise for salaries or benefits or to pay your rent or your water bill,” said Nora Flood, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.

Among the state’s six largest districts, Cherry Creek, Douglas County, Aurora and Adams 12, have no policies addressing the use of parent group donations for staff salaries.

"There’s got to be a way to provide the same fundraising advantage for poor neighborhoods."Stephenie Falcone, Gilpin and Polaris parent

Denver and Jeffco have nearly identical policies on the issue.

Both say that principals have discretion when it comes to donations for classified staff, but that donations to employ teachers with daily classroom responsibilities should be handled centrally, with top administrators determining “the distribution of such donations based on need, equity and other school specific variables.”

Denver Public School administrators said district leaders try to honor the intentions of the donating group and that the “school specific” provision allows for flexibility in applying the policy.

Even at Gilpin—where annual fundraising tops out at $15,000—generating enough money to pay for additional staff is the ultimate goal.

Parents who are part of the school’s fundraising arm, “Friend of Gilpin,” say they need $60,000 to bring back seven City Year staff members who last year served as mentors and coaches. The energetic college graduates provided extra hands in the classroom and eased discipline problems at the school, which is under threat of closure.

“I have seen it save small boys specifically,” said Koelliker. “My goal is to raise that kind of money this year.”

But most of it won’t come out of parents’ pocketbooks. In fact, the school’s most successful fundraiser is a home tour in the Five Points neighborhood that targets community members rather than parents. Last year’s inaugural tour brought in $4,000 and this year it raised $8,000.

Still, it’s a far cry from $60,000, and that’s why both Koelliker and Falcone are still searching for their golden ticket.

“There’s got to be a way to provide the same fundraising advantage for poor neighborhoods,” said Falcone.

“Public school is not free anymore.”

No easy answers

While some parents and educators daydream about a scenario in which affluent schools share their fundraising proceeds with struggling schools, they know there would be resistance.

"I just live with it and I do what I can to make sure the children get something from the extra money that we have."Brenda Kazin, principal, Place Bridge Academy

“I think you’d get pushback from the parents,” said Kazin, the Place Bridge Academy principal. “They have the right to spend their money where they want to.”

That said, many schools do extend help to the less advantaged—say, by contributing to a community nonprofit or offering help to a sister school. Such contributions can be a hodgepodge, however, neither sustained nor systematic.

School district foundations often direct money to high-needs schools, but not exclusively. For example, the Denver Public Schools Foundation offers some types of assistance through a grant process and some to schools where at least 70 percent of students are low-income.

In northwest Denver, an annual bar and restaurant crawl called “Totally Tennyson” provides something of an antidote to the every-man-for-himself model of school fundraising. The event, originally run by the online community Highland Mommies and now privately managed, raises around $60,000 for 15 schools in the area—both high-income and low-income.

"Until people really start coming out in droves, it’s not going to change."Jonna Levine, public policy director, Colorado PTA

The money isn’t divided evenly, though. A school’s take depends partly on the number of $25 tickets parents and staff there sell and how many volunteers each school provides to help run the event. Additional funds are distributed based on a formula that takes a school’s need into account.

To leaders of Colorado’s PTA, the perennial focus on fundraising by parent groups is a long-standing problem. They say the primary goal of PTA chapters should be advocacy.

“You have some parents who can fundraise like nobody’s business,” Levine said.

But they could make a big difference if they put some of that energy into advocating for state-level change—for example, writing letters and making phone calls urging lawmakers to address the school funding crisis.

“Until people really start coming out in droves,” she said, “it’s not going to change.”

Deputy Bureau Chief Nic Garcia contributed to this report.

If you’d like to share your school’s unique fundraising challenge or solution with Chalkbeat, email us at co.tips@chalkbeat.org.