Fundraising Frustration

Disparities grow as parent groups raise money to cover school funding gaps

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Carmen Stevens, left, and Amarria Miller volunteer at their classroom's bake sale in December 2015. The Gilpin Montessori students were raising funds for their class pets.

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.

behind the budget

With House plan that adds money for vulnerable kids, all Indianapolis districts would gain

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Perry Township, along with the other Marion County districts, would see more per-student funding if a House budget proposal moves forward.

Every district in Indianapolis is tentatively slated to get more state dollars per student under House Republicans’ 2019 budget plan released this week — exceeding some school leaders’ expectations.

For the most part, new money added to the budget to fund each student along with higher enrollment estimates are driving the increases. But even though some districts are projected to lose students, they would still get more money because of changes to Indiana’s funding formula that add money for vulnerable students and because lawmakers put more money in the budget overall.

“I just didn’t think they’d be able to reach that level when they started the session,” said Patrick Mapes, superintendent in Perry Township. “It’s very much appreciated.”

In Indianapolis Public Schools, the city’s largest school district, per-student funding is expected to go up more than 3 percent to $8,029 from $7,764. Overall, the district would see about 4 percent more in total state dollars. Compared to other districts, IPS receives more per student in part because of the number of students there from low-income families. Having more English-learners and students with disabilities can also bring in additional funding per-student.

“There are still too many moving pieces in other parts of the comprehensive budget proposal to get a clear picture of what this will ultimately mean for our students and employees,” an IPS spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

The estimates are far from final, as the Senate will still offer its own budget draft and lawmakers will eventually have to come to a compromise. But the House draft, which easily passed out of the Ways and Means Committee on Monday, will likely see support from the full House in the coming week.

This year, district funding estimates could be even more volatile because of problems with a calculation that drives extra aid to districts with larger shares of students from low-income families. It’s unclear how this might affect schools because the calculations were not changed from last year.

“We used the numbers that we felt gave schools the most realistic proposal,” said House Ways & Means Chairman Todd Huston. He said that he was not sure when more accurate projections would be available, but House Republican staff was working with other state agencies to dig into the problem.

The budget draft proposes increasing Indiana’s contributions to schools by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020, and $5,549 per student in 2021.

House lawmakers also made some big overall changes to how schools are funded that do more to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

Funding for preschool for students with disabilities increased for the first time in more than 25 years, going from $2,750 per student currently, to $2,875 per student in 2020, and $3,000 per student by 2021. In 2018, about 13,000 students qualified for the program, costing the state about $36 million. The increased grant would up those totals to about $37.3 million in 2020 and $39 million in 2021.

The budget draft would also send more money to educate students learning English as a new language for the fourth year in a row. Last year, lawmakers set aside about $32 million. Over the next two years, there’d be more than $40 million available for grants, at $325 per student, up from $300 previously.

Higher per-student grants for English learners would help the district shift more money to teachers and other employees, said Mapes, the Perry Township superintendent. Raising teacher salaries has been a hot topic during this year’s legislative session, and while money is not specifically earmarked for raises in the House budget plan, Mapes said it doesn’t need to be.

“That’s local control,” Mapes said. “We have an elected school board whose job is to make that decision for each school corporation in the state. It’s not the job of the legislature to direct down a salary schedule.”

In Beech Grove, the funding forecast is slightly less optimistic — the district is the only in the county projected to lose funding overall through 2021, by a small margin of less than 1 percent. That’s driven by a projected loss of about 116 students out of a total of 3,033.

“We all need to take three steps back and not panic because … there’s a factor here that’s real critical — the standpoint that our enrollment has gone up for nine straight years until this year,” said Paul Kaiser, superintendent in the district. Lawmakers “are estimating our enrollment is going to continue to drop.”

Kaiser noted that the district does have a high rate of students transferring in from outside the district — Beech Grove had the second highest rate of students transferring into the district last year, with almost 1,200 students coming in. Like the rest of the county, Beech Grove is expected to get more dollars per student, so if transfers work out like Kaiser expects, the additional money would turn things around. He said he isn’t sure why enrollment was down last year.

“We’re hoping last year’s drop in enrollment was a blip on the horizon,” Kaiser said. “And if it’s not, then we’ll have to decide what we want to do.”

Part of Kaiser’s strategy is going to district voters in the fall to ask them to approve a tax increase — a move many school districts across the state, including IPS, are increasingly making to bring in more revenue.

One group that would see reductions under the House plan were virtual schools and virtual programs operated by school districts — they were cut from 100 percent of what students in traditional schools get to 90 percent, equivalent with students at virtual charter schools.

Lawmakers made the change in response to a rapidly growing virtual school in the Union school district, near Modoc, helped throw off school funding estimates in 2017. Even with the funding cut, budget projections show Union still would receive more state money, driven largely by growing enrollment.

House Republican staff did not confirm whether the change in all district-based virtual school funding resulted in cost-savings for the state.

Take back

Higher property values mean Colorado is getting back millions from schools

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki
Colorado State Capitol

With student enrollment lower than anticipated and property tax revenues up in many districts, the state could get back as much as $77 million originally allocated for schools this year.

That’s a small portion of Colorado’s $7 billion K-12 education budget, and that money could be used to help fund Gov. Jared Polis’ universal full-day kindergarten plan. But some lawmakers want school districts, not the state, to control at least a portion of that money.

Citing the recent Denver teacher strike and concerns over school funding, the Colorado House voted Friday to let schools keep $12.9 million of that money. As early as Wednesday, the state Senate must either approve the amended Senate Bill 128 or send it back to a conference committee made up of the budget committee members.

It’s the first salvo in what could become a contentious debate over how the state funds schools.

Under Colorado law, the legislature determines how much money school districts should get for each student, with the state and school districts picking up a portion of the costs. If local districts raise more money, the state pays a correspondingly smaller amount. This year, school districts raised a collective $56.1 million more than predicted from local sources, mostly property tax revenue.

At the same time, schools are educating fewer students than predicted. Per pupil funding is based on estimates made months in advance. Enrollment for the current school year is 1,056 fewer than forecast, with at-risk student enrollment 9,893 fewer than the estimate.

The $77 million — or $64.1 million if the House amendment stands — could help fund full-day kindergarten, which is estimated to cost $227 million next year.

Or it could go into next year’s school finance act, which lays out how much money schools will get for 2019-20. Or it could go into the general fund, where it could be used for other needs.

But asking school districts to return money midway through the year can be difficult “because districts hire teachers for the start of the school year and then it’s really hard halfway through to say, ‘Oh, we can’t pay for you anymore,’” said Matt Cook, director of advocacy and public policy for the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Last year, the state took back $104 million. With an increase in local revenues of $97 million, the total cut was only about $7 million, compared to a $21 million impact this year if the state keeps the full amount. Some of last year’s money was later put toward school safety measures.

The House amendment keeps average per-pupil funding at $8,137, instead of reducing it by about $15 on average as the Joint Budget Committee proposed.

The impact of these proposed changes varies among school districts, said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project. Some districts have seen larger changes in enrollment than others, and some districts raise a large portion of their revenue from local sources, while others are more dependent on state funding.

“[Y]ou’re all of a sudden again going to have a whole different group of kind of winners and losers in this process,” she said.

There’s also a political consideration for Democrats and Republicans alike.

“Everybody who ran for election this last year ran on funding education better, and that they were looking to try to solve the problem,” Rainey said.

In fact, attack ads in the 2018 election often cited votes on school finance amendments or promises to increase school funding.

The House amendment passed on a voice voice with apparent broad support. It replaced an earlier amendment that would have left all $77 million with the school districts.

“I think our next step for us would be what’s the financial, fiscal implication of the amendment and then wait to see what we hear from our staff,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and budget committee member.

How this relatively tiny slice of the pie is carved up could be instructive, going forward, education observers say.

“That’s always the big question every year, right?” Cook said. “How do we pay for everything? This year you’ve got the pressure for full-day kindergarten, so I think it’s going to be a very tough budget negotiation.”