Not always a cakewalk

As New York City starts collecting data on inequities in PTA fundraising, the search is on for potential solutions

PHOTO: Chalkbeat photo
Families from Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn hold a bake sale.

When Susan Moesker’s son started sixth grade five years ago at Boerum Hill School for International Studies in Brooklyn, there was no active PTA. The school, she said, “has a wonderful and diverse student body,” which Moesker loved, but not all of the parents could afford to donate extra time and money to the school.

“We have families who have tremendous ability to give, and we have families who have no ability to give whatsoever,” she said.

So Moesker and other parents who could banded together, and through bake sales and chili cook-offs, raised about $800 that first year. The group stayed active, grew an executive board and reported $6,585 in revenue in 2016, according to its latest tax return available on Guidestar. But while the momentum was upward, the receipts remained modest.

So a couple of years ago, the PTA decided to spring for a gala — the type of fundraiser you might see at nearby P.S. 261, which raised almost $900,000 in 2016, or at P.S. 58, which raised $1.4 million, through a combination of donations, grants, and services parents pay for at the school, according to Guidestar.

Moesker’s PTA was able to secure a venue for free, and the gala and silent auction raked in about $36,000 last year. With the help of corporate matching of some parents’ direct donations, the PTA expects to pull in $83,580 this year, according to its online budget projection. While this is significantly more than the average $1,000 city PTAs raise, according to one city official, it’s still well below the million-dollar budgets of the richest PTAs.

It’s natural for parents to want to fill in perceived gaps in resources in their children’s classrooms. But since many public school parents can’t afford to donate large sums of money, the powerhouse PTAs are contributing to the already vast divide between wealthy and needy schools — a longstanding problem that is coming under new scrutiny.

Last month, the New York City Council passed a bill requiring the Department of Education to publish by December 2019 an annual report on how much each parent-teacher association or parent association is raising.

Although the education department already collects this information through each school’s principal, it is not posted anywhere for the public to see, says Councilman Mark Treyger, who sponsored the bill and is the chairman of the council’s education committee.

The bill requires the department to post the report on its website, deliver it to the council’s speaker and provide demographic information about the student population — race, ethnicity, English learner status — at each PTA’s school.

By making the data more accessible, Treyger says, he hopes to launch an informed conversation about how the city might address the “glaring disparities” that arise from the PTA Haves and Have Nots.

“I don’t believe your zip code should dictate the opportunities you receive,” he said in a recent interview.

What other cities are doing

Treyger’s bill isn’t the first time New York — or other cities — have wrestled with questions of fairness surrounding PTA funds, which schools may use to pay assistant teachers, fund electives or sponsor after-school programs.

In 1997, for example, parents at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village learned that one of the school’s teaching positions was being eliminated. Parents rallied, raising $36,000 almost overnight, nearly enough to cover the $46,000-salary of the teacher being ousted. Then schools Chancellor Rudy Crew blocked the parents’ effort and ordered a moratorium on similar PTA moves, saying it wasn’t fair to schools that didn’t have the same resources.

Today, regulations set by the Chancellor govern how parent associations can operate, including what they can spend their money on and what financial disclosures they have to make. For example, PTAs can’t pay for additional teachers in core subjects.

But inequities persist. At P.S. 334 The Anderson School on the Upper West Side, the PTA is already advertising and soliciting donations for its 27th annual auction next March. Suggestions for donated items range from $25 gift cards to $10,000 vacations. In 2015, the PTA reported revenue of close to $1 million, according to Guidestar and was ranked in 2013 as the country’s 10th richest PTA in a report by the Center for American Progress, a progressive advocacy group.

The parent organization at P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side showed revenue of more than $900,000 in its latest filing and is the 16th richest in the country, according to the same report. Its website suggests an annual donation of $1,200 — though also states “any amount your family is able to give” is welcome. The money helps fund assistant teachers for every classroom, performing arts programs, school-wide supplies, special programs and staff development among other expenses, according to the website’s breakdown.

To address this disparity, Councilman Stephen T. Levin loosely floated the idea, at the hearing on Treyger’s City Council bill, of a progressive taxation system, in which PTAs or PAs might donate a chunk of their raised revenue above a certain level — such as $100,000 or $200,000 — but didn’t say exactly where the money would go. Levin acknowledged, however, that such a tax would be “a pretty serious step” and wondered what other cities are doing.

The answer is that some are already experimenting with ways to make PTA giving more equitable. In the Santa Monica-Malibu school system, parents can donate directly to their schools if it’s to beautify the campus or sponsor field trips. But if parents want to pay for teachers’ salaries or school-day programs, they must also donate to another pool of money that’s then redistributed to needier schools.

In Portland, a central foundation collects one-third of the proceeds any school raises above  $10,000. So for every dollar past this mark, 33 cents go toward equity grants that are delivered to the district’s under-resourced schools.  

It’s not clear in New York City whether rules governing PTAs and PAs would permit donations to other schools or efforts to compel gifts to other organizations. To be legal, PTAs would likely have to adopt clear disclaimers, stating if or when donations could be redirected, said Cliff Perlman, an attorney with New York-based firm Perlman and Perlman, which specializes in non-profit legal matters.

“You’re giving money to an entity and expecting” it to be used “a certain way,” Perlman said. The recipient “is supposed to honor that intent or not take the money.”

Others worry parents will be less inclined to donate if the money isn’t going to benefit their children, resulting in a smaller philanthropic pie for everyone.

And in Malibu, fury over the district’s plan to share PTA funds between the Santa Monica and Malibu schools fueled a desire among some Malibu parents to separate from the district. It still includes both communities but has agreed to establish separate fundraising models.

A voluntary approach — for now

Ben Arthur, a former parent at P.S. 87, the William T. Sherman School on the Upper West Side, said the “blamey-shamey” critiques that wealthier PTAs sometimes weather are unfair.

“These are rational people who are being faced with schools that are being underfunded comically, criminally, by the state,” he said. “It’s really not the fault of P.S. 87 parents that they’re being put in a position to fill these massive gaps.” In 2016, the school’s PTA pulled in more than $1.8 million in combined donations and programs that parents directly pay for, according to Guidestar.

Abigail Edgecliffe-Johnson, another parent at the school, says its auction and fairs are so successful because parents not only can donate more money than parents at other schools but also have the time to devote to planning events and have access to high-value items to put up for bid. Parents who work on Broadway might donate tickets to hot shows, and Arthur, through his connections to the music industry, once secured a three-hour recording session at a local studio for auction.

At the same time, “It is not fair that we are all in public schools, but our school has the ability to fill those shortfalls,” Edgecliffe-Johnson said.

So in 2015, she and Arthur co-founded School 2 School, which raises money for schools in District 7, a needy district in the Bronx. Last May, a Bronx elementary school teacher turned to School 2 School when she needed art supplies for her students. She wanted them to illustrate stories they’d written, but she didn’t have sketch pads, crayons and glue sticks for her students to use. She filed a $690 request on School 2 School, and four months later it was granted, along with another $122 to help finance other activities.

School 2 School has raised $18,814 and funded 40 projects over the past three years, according to its website.

“Your generosity provided my students with essential resources to inspire them to do their best writing,” she wrote in a thank-you comment on the fundraising page.

But some contend that concern about PTAs is just another way to avoid addressing more fundamental inequities and divides.

Marco Battistella, a public school parent who just finished a two-year term as co-chair of the Chancellor Parent Advisory Council, said that the composition of the city’s PTAs and their ability to fundraise usually come down to a school’s demographics, and ultimately to economic integration in schools.

“Yes, there are in fact some schools that raise significant amounts of money and many schools —a majority of schools — they raise very little money,” Battistella said. But “the way to go,” he said, “is to make sure that the demographics in the school are more equally distributed.”

“To be blunt,” he said in written testimony over Treyger’s bill, “no number of bake sales will ever cancel the ill effects of continued systemic underfunding of NYC’s public schools by the state government.”  

parent power

Indianapolis charter booster launches parent advocacy fellowship

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

When it comes to reforming education, one local nonprofit that supports charter schools wants parents and families to have a seat at the table.

The Mind Trust announced Wednesday that it is establishing a two-year fellowship to develop a parent advocacy organization — and seeking candidates to be a part of it.

The goal of the fellowship is to empower families — particularly low-income families and families of color — to advocate for changes in their publicly funded schools, said The Mind Trust executive director Brandon Brown.

“This is our attempt at really flipping the script, from a relatively top-down approach to education reform to a movement led by families that we hope will be sustainable over time,” Brown said.

A common criticism of education reform efforts, both in Indianapolis and across the nation, is that changes are forced onto communities, and that families affected have little or no input about those changes. But it remains to be seen whether The Mind Trust’s push for greater parent involvement can transcend hotly politicized divides in education. Locally, Stand for Children Indiana’s parent advocacy efforts have faced criticism from those who feel the group is trying to advance a political agenda supporting reform efforts.

Brown said the new parent advocacy group would be independent of The Mind Trust.

“That might mean that eventually they may choose to advocate for something that is not the direction we want to go,” he said.

Still, the group would likely focus on families at Indianapolis charter schools. Brown said he expects the fellow, who will receive coaching from The Mind Trust, to support charter concepts such as giving strong leaders more freedom to run their schools. The fellowship comes with an estimated salary of $75,000 to $90,000 per year.

But Seretha Edwards, a parent at School 43, said families need unbiased training and support — and she’s not sure The Mind Trust is the ideal vehicle for that.

“I’m sure if The Mind Trust is doing it, it’s going to be a biased vetting process,” said Edwards, who is involved in the IPS Community Coalition, a group critical of charter reforms.

It would be up to the fellow to decide what the new parent advocacy organization would look like, and what issues it would undertake, said Shannon Williams, The Mind Trust’s senior vice president of community engagement. She plans to work with community and faith organizations to find the right candidate. Ideally, that person, Williams said, would be a local parent who can connect with other parents and build a grassroots organization. Williams pointed to Memphis Lift and PAVE, or Parents Amplifying Voices in Education, in Washington, D.C., as potential models for parent engagement work.

In Indianapolis, Stand for Children provides a “University for Parents” to train families on how the educational system works and how to ask policymakers for changes. The organization works with parents at new innovation schools and supports parents in endorsing school board candidates. In the past, the group has arranged for parents to go door-to-door to gather support for the district’s referendums.

“I think the biggest thing that we have seen with families that we work with is that they just want a great school for their child,” said Stand Indiana executive director Justin Ohlemiller.

Cesar Roman, director of community engagement for the pro-school choice Institute for Quality Education, said more parent advocacy is badly needed in Indianapolis.

“What we often leave out is parents themselves and families themselves,” said Roman, who is also a member of Chalkbeat’s Reader Advisory Board. “The No. 1 place where we’ve gone wrong is not engaging people where they’re at.”

This is particularly an issue in low-income communities, experts say, in places like Indianapolis, where upward mobility has proved more challenging than in other American cities.

Wealthier people often have more social capital and more power to put pressure on schools, said Howard Fuller, founder of the now-shuttered Black Alliance for Educational Options, former Milwaukee schools superintendent, and a school-choice advocate.

But in low-income communities, schools “really feel less pressure, because they’re dealing with people who are traditionally powerless,” he said.

Fuller said it’s important for a parent advocacy organization to go beyond engagement, and give parents the power to push for changes.

“The question is, what kinds of parent organizations can be created that are there as a constant — not just for a particular issue or a particular problem,” he said.

The Mind Trust is accepting fellowship applications through March and expects to select a fellow in June.

yes vote

Denver teachers vote to strike in push for higher pay

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles/Chalkbeat
Members of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association announce the results of their strike vote Tuesday.

Denver teachers voted overwhelmingly to go on strike for the first time in 25 years. Amid a national wave of teacher activism, they’re seeking higher pay and also a fundamental change in how the district compensates educators.

Because of state rules, Monday is the earliest a Denver strike could start.

Ninety-three percent of the teachers and other instructional staff members who voted in a union election Saturday and Tuesday were in favor of a strike, according to the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. That surpassed the two-thirds majority needed for a strike to happen.

“They’re striking for better pay, they’re striking for our profession, and they’re striking for Denver students,” said teacher Rob Gould, a member of the union’s negotiation team who announced the strike vote results Tuesday night.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova called the strike vote “not entirely unexpected.”

“From the correspondence that I’ve had with teachers by email and folks that I’ve talked with, it’s really clear there is a lot of frustration on the part of our teachers,” Cordova said.

She has pledged to keep schools open if teachers walk out. In an automated message to parents Tuesday evening, she made it clear that classes will take place as normal Wednesday and “into the foreseeable future.” The district is actively recruiting substitute teachers to fill in during a strike. It is offering to pay them $200 a day, which is double the normal rate.

The strike potentially affects 71,000 students in district-run schools. Another 21,000 students attend charter schools, where teachers are not union members.

Cordova said district officials plan to meet with Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday and share a letter asking for state intervention, which could delay a strike. Denver Classroom Teachers Association officials also plan to meet with Polis Wednesday, according to union Deputy Executive Director Corey Kern.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment cannot impose an agreement between the district and the union, but it can provide mediation or hold hearings to try to bring about a resolution. In 1994, the last time Denver teachers went on strike, Gov. Roy Romer helped negotiate a settlement — after the court refused to order teachers back to work.

“It’s in everyone’s best interest to continue to work on finding the common ground,” Cordova said.

The strike vote in Denver comes after a weeklong strike by teachers in Los Angeles. It also follows a wave of activism and agitation for higher teacher pay that began sweeping the country last year. Here in Colorado, teachers from all over the state staged several rallies at the state Capitol last spring, demanding that lawmakers boost funding for the state’s schools.

The issue at hand in Denver is more localized. The teachers union and the school district had been negotiating for more than a year over how to revamp the district’s complex pay-for-performance system, called ProComp.

Late Friday night, an hour and a half before the most recent agreement was set to expire, the union rejected the district’s latest offer. Although the district offered to invest an additional $20 million into teacher pay and revamp ProComp to look more like a traditional salary schedule — which is what the union wanted — union negotiators said the district’s offer didn’t go far enough.

That rejection ended negotiations and set the stage for a strike. The union represents more than 60 percent of Denver’s 5,700 teachers, counselors, nurses, and other instructional staff.

Union officials did not release the number of teachers who voted on the strike or how many members it currently has. A spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Employment said strike votes are internal union matters over which the department does not have any purview. Kern said the vote was conducted electronically by a third party.

Cordova is in her third week on the job as superintendent. She has reminded the public repeatedly that she started her career as a Denver teacher and counts several teachers among her best friends. But her pledge to be more responsive than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, has been tested in the bargaining process and now will be tested even further.

Denver teachers have long been frustrated by ProComp. In its most recent iteration, ProComp paid teachers a base salary and then allowed them to earn additional bonuses and incentives for things such as working in a high-poverty school or hard-to-fill position.

Denver voters passed a special tax increase in 2005 to fund the ProComp incentives. The tax is expected to generate $33 million this year.

But many teachers found ProComp confusing. Relying on bonuses and incentives caused their pay to fluctuate in ways that made financial planning difficult, they said.

Chris Landis, a fifth grade teacher at Colfax Elementary, said his salary has varied by as much as $5,000 from one year to the next in the four years he’s been teaching in Denver. He sees the union proposal as creating more stability over the long run, which makes the strike a risk worth taking.

“As someone who wants to be a teacher for the rest of my life, the union proposal has a lot going for it,” he said. “Education is worth fighting for. I’m willing to take a personal hit to guarantee the future for our kids.”

The union wants smaller bonuses and more money for base pay. The union also wants the district to spend roughly $28 million more than it currently does on teacher compensation.

The district’s proposal would have increased base salaries, too, but not by as much. And it would have kept the bonuses and incentives more robust. For example, the district’s offer includes a $2,500 incentive for teachers who teach at schools serving a high proportion of students from low-income families, while the union proposal calls for a $1,500 incentive.

District officials said that incentive is key to attracting and retaining high-quality teachers at high-poverty schools, where teacher turnover can be high, and Cordova does not want to compromise on that.

In the end, the union and the district proposals were separated by about $8 million. District officials said they couldn’t come up with any more money, and would already have to make deep cuts to invest the additional $20 million they proposed.

Teachers called their bluff, pointing to what they called a top-heavy administration and noting that $8 million is less than 1 percent of Denver Public Schools’ annual $1 billion budget.

The strike will put pressure on teachers, too, though. The union has a very modest strike fund. A Go Fund Me started on Jan. 16 had raised a little more than $7,000 when the vote results were announced.

“Everybody is stressed out” about going without pay, said Tiffany Choi, a French teacher at East High School, “but this is the sacrifice we’re willing to make.”