School districts across the region and country have struggled for years to find equity when it comes to private donations, in some cases regulating how such money can be used.
In the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in California, school officials voted in 2011 to block PTAs from independently raising funds to pay for school personnel, a proposal some irate parents dubbed the “Robin Hood” plan. The move led other California districts to consider similar measures.
In Fairfax, the school board and county supervisors have approved initial plans to spend $3 million in county money on 15 new synthetic turf fields in areas where the rate of free and reduced-price meals is highest. Fairfax boasts 67 synthetic turf fields, largely funded by private donors and athletics boosters from the county’s tony neighborhoods.
The Howard County Board of Education created a nonprofit foundation to leverage private donations and ensure equity of resources across the district. The foundation donates laptops to needy students and pays for innovative classroom projects that the system would not typically fund.
The Bright Minds Foundation came to life after officials rejected attempts among certain Howard high schools to install privately funded stadium lights. Board of Education members and the superintendent at the time said lights had to be installed at all high schools or at none. The community banded together and raised more than $1 million to light stadiums at all 12 of the county’s high schools in 2004.
Equity is important, said Bill Hoffman, interim executive director of the National School Foundation Association. But he said school boards must be careful not to stifle parent fundraising efforts.
“PTAs and booster clubs are typically passionate about whatever they’re raising money for,” Hoffman said. “I don’t know if that passion would remain if the money wouldn’t be used for what they were originally raising the money to get.”
Hoffman said nonprofit education foundations, like the one created in Howard, are popular ways for school systems to centralize fundraising or support students from communities with fewer resources. Montgomery has a nonprofit education foundation, and officials have recently discussed expanding the organization’s responsibilities to divvy up private donations as a possible reform.
In Montgomery, the most expensive privately funded improvement during the past three years has been a $1.3 million artificial turf field, under construction at Wootton High. The Bethesda Soccer Club paid for $900,000 of the project, with parents raising an additional $200,000. The school system funded the remainder when the project came in $200,000 overbudget.