Tight budgets force fundraising for salaries
Updated: 12/26/2010 11:10:12 PM CST
David Evenocheck reads "Franklin and Harriet" by Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark to his first grade class Tuesday, December 21, 2010 at Shannon Park Elementary School in Rosemount. (Pioneer Press: Chris Polydoroff)
A larger-than-expected crop of third-graders showed up at Rosemount's Shannon Park Elementary last school year — and with it, the specter of 32-student classes.
So, Principal Michael Guthrie appealed to his school's site council, a parent group that raises tens of thousands of dollars each year for classroom technology and more. With $50,000 in site council money, he covered the salary and benefits of an extra third-grade teacher "in the 11th hour," bringing class sizes down to 25 students.
Money raised by parents traditionally has funded school extras, from field trips to library books to classroom supplies. But as budgets have grown tighter in recent years, more schools are tapping these funds for their most essential — and biggest-ticket — expense: classroom staff.
Some public education advocates have mixed feelings about the trend, which threatens to erode the level playing field between schools and saddle administrators with thorny dilemmas. But advocates acknowledge school leaders can't begrudge parents the opportunity to step in.
"It is what it is," Guthrie said. "This is our reality, and I am going to do the best I can for Shannon Park students."
On the heels of budget cuts that claimed 144 jobs last spring, parent groups at eight of Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan's 18 elementary schools chipped in more than $143,000 toward classroom staff. Generally, the money helped round out salaries for teachers who
schools otherwise might not have been able to keep.
In recent years, Westview Elementary Principal Karen Toomey has channeled about $13,000 of the $20,000 her PTO raises annually toward staffing.
"In the past, we used the money to buy things," Toomey said, "but in the past few years, it's been all about people."
Jason Breen, the Oak Ridge PTO president, said the school's parent group has sponsored artist-in-residence programs, field trips and library books. Last spring, the group contributed $10,000 toward a classroom teacher. Fundraising efforts, he said, bring parents together and get them engaged in the life of the school.
"Ultimately, our ability to change the student-teacher ratio is pretty minimal," said Breen, who left teaching six years ago after losing his job in the district to layoffs. "We're a very small piece of things."
But Principal Kris Scallon said the money really helps. Without it, she said, "we would have had our class sizes a little higher or our programs a little more limited."
The use of parent-raised funds for staffing is not new. In 2004, parents at Vadnais Heights Elementary sold steaks and lobbied civic groups, raising $34,000 to help hire an extra fourth-grade teacher.
But as layoffs have resulted in increased class sizes, more districts have directed parent resources to the classroom, said Charlie Kyte of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.
In St. Paul, the bulk of parent contributions goes into the district's general fund, where it supports classroom staff, among other major expenses. With a $100,000 donation and matching community funds, St. Anthony-New Brighton is looking to endow teaching positions — either existing ones endangered by looming budget shortages or new positions, to make the district more competitive, Superintendent Rod Thompson said.
A heavyweight of parent fundraising, the Orono Alliance for Education pours $250,000 each year into the district's $24 million general fund, said Assistant Superintendent Neal Lawson. This year, the Alliance website says, the money helped add new college-credit classes, world language options, extra accelerated math sections, a science and engineering pilot class at the elementary school and more.
More districts are contacting MASA with questions about directing the private contributions, Kyte said: "School districts haven't dealt with this very much in the past, so this is new territory for them."
FORMING A HABIT?
Education leaders readily agree that falling back on parent contributions in a time of flat state funding is not an ideal solution.
For one thing, parents might not be able to replicate a big fundraising push to hire or keep a teacher.
At Shannon Park, Guthrie was able to keep the new third-grade teacher this year with district funds, but "unfortunately, I have had to let people go that I have hired with the help of fundraising dollars."
Some worry donors might feel entitled to a say in staffing decisions. If parents helped hire a teacher, for instance, could they demand that position be spared in budget cuts?
"Districts have to draw the line between accepting this wonderful support and having somebody dictate what they do," Kyte said.
And, said Mary Cecconi of the advocacy group Parents United for Public Schools, the use of parent funds for staffing could pry open gaps in opportunities for students, especially in the metro area, with its disparities of wealth. In the late 1990s, Cecconi was an aggressive fundraiser for the Stillwater district, selling wrapping paper to fund field trips, backpacks and a new school playground. But she remembers balking at the idea of using that money to hire a teacher.
In Rosemount, teachers union president Jim Smola also worries about the risk of creating inequities: "It puts some buildings at an unfair advantage, I think. There might be other buildings where the parents don't have the means to pony up the money."
(At 6 percent, Shannon Park has the lowest rate of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches among district elementary schools. Westview and Oak Ridge have among the highest rates.)
And Smola worries the use of parent funds might be habit-forming: Operating levies, he pointed out, also used to support district extras, but now most districts use those funds for essentials. Like local tax hikes, parent donations relieve some of the pressure on the state to fund education more fully, Smola said.
In accepting parent contributions, some school districts, such as Roseville, draw the line at licensed staff.
Still, turning down help from parents amid painful budget cuts is a tough proposition for schools. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, average class sizes in Minnesota have become among the highest in the country — 27 students at the elementary level to a national average of 23.7 in 2008. Although researchers still debate the effect of class size on student achievement, there's evidence smaller classes make a difference in elementary grades, especially for underprivileged students.
"When parents want to do something, I absolutely understand," Cecconi said. "Our tagline is, 'You can't rewind childhood.' "