With glaring PTA fundraising inequities, some Manhattan parents want solutions. But money can be a touchy subject.

Sharmilee L. Ramudit has one child in a school whose PTA raises more money per student than her other child’s school might raise all year.

The PTA at her third grader’s school, the Upper West Side’s P.S. 452, brought in $407,640 in 2016, according to the group’s most recent available tax returns. That money — about $1,277 per student that year — helps pay for a group that teaches dance intertwined with science, among other things.

Four miles north at Harlem’s P.S. 242, where Ramudit’s daughter attends pre-K, parents are working just as hard, but have raised just a few hundred dollars so far through bake sales and book sales, parent leaders said. Their goal is to pay for things like books and ensuring every student — the majority of whom are from low-income families — has a gift during the holidays.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if we had schools that were buddies to each other,” Ramudit said. “Then it would be like, ‘My classroom needs a new sand table. But our PTA funds are not there.’ And then you could just tap your buddy PTA, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh sure, we’ll help with that.”

Major disparities exist between parent-teacher associations across the city, with some groups raising enough to pay for after-school programs or services that principals can’t or won’t budget for. Funding inequities are especially pronounced in Ramudit’s District 3, which spans from the Upper West Side to part of Harlem. It is home to some of the city’s wealthiest PTAs — like P.S. 87, which raised $2 million in 2017, or roughly $2,270 per student per student — while other schools report nearly no funding.  

Parents like Ramudit, who are eager for change, have floated different ideas to level the playing field: Creating a central pool of money, creating a fund-sharing system, or capping donations at certain schools. 

District 3 parent leaders are hoping they’ll have more leverage to find solutions — or, at least, can start conversations — after the education department releases every school’s PTA fundraising data and school demographics. They believe that the data, mandated by the City Council to be released for the first time by Dec. 1, will shed light on how much money is being raised by different parent organizations and provide a window into how that translates into school resources. 

But just as the rezoning of the district’s schools have been controversial, the idea of resource-sharing for PTAs is contentious as well, causing rifts among parent leaders over the status quo of fundraising. Some parents point to general underfunding of schools as the root cause fueling the disparities and want to ensure that issue is part of the debate.

“I have kids of my own, and it’s hard to be like, ‘All right let me think about everyone else,’” said Dennis Morgan, a member of District 3’s Community Education Council, the local elected parent body that can approve rezoning, who helps oversee that group’s equity committee. “But this moment where we are in time, where we’re like, ‘Me, me, me, me,’ let’s figure out how we can lift everybody up. I think one of the ways to do that is reevaluating what this PTA funding looks like.” 

Morgan said the equity committee plans to use the forthcoming PTA data as part of a formal study of the resources different schools have because of PTA fundraising, and how those resources affect student academic achievement. He’s unsure of how long such a study will take.

“It’s probably going to take some trial-and-error,” Morgan said. “The goal is to present [the study] to the CEC and our constituency, and then move it up the chain so people can use it as a reference point so we can say, ‘Now we know how much impact the hydroponics lab has.”

Treading carefully around money talk

Councilman Mark Treyger, who sponsored the PTA fundraising disclosure bill, hopes the information will push the education department to provide base-level funding for parent organizations. 

Katie O’Hanlon, a spokesperson for the education department, said PTAs and PAs are “autonomous, self-governing bodies,” and the department believes that “all parent leaders should be transparent about fundraising,” but did not directly address Treyger’s comments.  

District 3 parents, who support changing the PTA status quo, are treading carefully because it continues to be a sensitive topic. That means having open-ended conversations that don’t make wealthier PTAs feel like they’re being accused of “hoarding” money, Ramudit said, who works alongside Morgan on the CEC’s equity committee. 

The equity committee of the PTA President’s Council, which is made up of PTA presidents and provides support to parent organizations in their district, surveyed District 3 PTAs a year ago to learn about what sort of equity-related work schools were doing, and what barriers existed. Answers came in from 18 of 30 elementary and middle schools and they varied, even among parents from the same school. As a result, the equity committee drafted an Apr. 9 letter to the chancellor and requested four things — three of them focused on providing schools with more guidance behind equity work, and the fourth asking the department to address fundraising inequities between different PTAs, suggesting such solutions as fundsharing and capping donations but not limited to those options.   

Almost immediately after the council voted to approve the letter, President Kerri Keiger heard pushback from parents and PTAs, with the primary complaint over the PTA fundraising bullet point and that they did not have enough time to review the whole document. 

Keiger, a parent of children at P.S. 166  — which raised $608,075, or about $950 per student in 2016 — said parents who do raise a lot of money experience “a lot of shaming” on this topic, which she believes makes it hard to have a civil conversation. 

Tension over possible PTA fundsharing or capping mentioned in the letter was one reason why the council passed a bylaw last week making the approval process more lengthy before council members propose to write or say anything publicly that represents the entire body.

Fundraising inequities in District 3 were “egregious” and it’s important conversation to discuss this, Keiger said, but she believes the underlying issue is underfunding of public schools. 

“If the [state and city] governments were allocating the money we need, there wouldn’t be a need to have PTAs fill in those gaps,” Keiger said. “I think that’s actually the problem parents of our community should bind behind.”

Parents from “two different worlds”

Nildania Perez, a mother of two children who attend P.S. 165 in Manhattan Valley, said the pushback on the letter is representative of what happens when “you talk about taking away privilege from people.”

Demographic data shows that P.S. 165, which receives Title 1 funding and where about two thirds of families are low-income, has slowly become more racially and economically diverse. That’s largely because of the school’s gifted and talented and dual-language programs. In the past year, the group is organizing election bake sales, book fairs, online fundraisers, and grant writing as ways to rake in cash, said Perez, who is a member of the President’s Council equity committee and wants to be able to have open conversations with parents at other schools about PTA disparities.

“People are living in two different worlds. People are not talking about that, and there is a lack of knowledge of what’s happening at schools,”  Perez said in an interview, who said her PTA struggles to raise $30,000 to $40,000.  

“We work really, really hard. I can’t tell you how committed and how hard these parents work. It’s like their second full-time job,” she said. 

That’s in deep contrast with P.S. 87, which sits two miles south of P.S. 165, and is known as one of the wealthiest parent associations in the city. In 2017, when about 12% of the students were from low-income families, the parent association there raised about $2 million through a combination of grants, contributions, and programs that parents directly paid for, according to their latest tax filings. Half of their budget comes from the school’s spring auction, according to the association’s website. 

P.S. 87 parent Abigail Edgecliffe-Johnson — who co-founded a website called School-2-School, which raises money for schools in Bronx’s District 7 — said she hopes next month’s citywide PTA data report leads to meaningful change, but isn’t used to “start fights” among schools. 

She tends to agree with Keiger that the state should be sending more money to schools, citing the battle over Foundation Aid, but also said she likes the idea of having a central pool of money that needy schools could pull from. 

“My hot take on this that we should understand money some schools are raising, not in order to shame schools that are raising a lot but….to understand what kids are not getting when parents are not able to raise those funds,” she said. 

Maria Nogueira, the PTA president at P.S. 242, takes a lot of pride in their fundraising efforts to help the school’s children as well as their struggling families. By her count, they’re expecting to raise raise roughly $500 this season through bake sales and a holiday fundraising effort, and they go to extra lengths to help parents by inviting representatives from different social service organizations to their meetings. 

“There are a lot of parents in need,” she said, “and because of so much stigma, they are afraid to say anything.”

This article tackles a topic raised during our 2019 Listening Tour. Read more about the Listening Tour here, and see more articles inspired by community input here.