Scoreboards and butterfly gardens: Is parent fundraising equitable in Montgomery?

Parent fundraising and private donations have produced enviable results at some Montgomery County schools: athletic scoreboards, artificial turf, a nearly $250,000 elementary school improvement project.

Other schools have seen little of such largesse.

Now Montgomery school leaders are asking: Should more be done to spread the wealth?

Such questions have become increasingly pointed in Montgomery, a high-performing school district where both prosperity and poverty exist and where gaps in student achievement are a continuing challenge. To that end, school officials have launched a review of the district’s policy on contributions made to improve facilities.

“If it’s good enough for any kid in Chevy Chase, it’s good enough for my kid, too,” said Melinda Anderson, a parent in Aspen Hill who argued at a community meeting last week that all school upgrades are important and that equity needs to be paramount.

“You’re not building a deck on the back of your house,” she said. “You’re adding an enhancement to a public school.”

Montgomery does not allow private donations for facility improvements that are considered essential or the responsibility of the school system. Donations are allowed for what some view as extras — a video scoreboard, a butterfly garden, additional landscaping or playground equipment.

Several big-ticket projects have attracted particular attention, including a million-dollar artificial-turf field at Thomas S. Wootton High School’s stadium and a $247,000 improvement project at Westbrook Elementary School in Bethesda.

A Washington Post analysis last year showed that of 126 privately funded school improvement projects in the past three years, 22 have cost between $10,000 and $1.3 million, and almost all of them happened in more affluent communities with fewer minority students.

School leaders say they don’t want to turn down community efforts to improve schools. But some PTAs and booster clubs raise much more than others. Some communities have deeper pockets.

“How do we find a way to create a level playing field?” asked school board Vice President Patricia O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase).

In Montgomery, facility fundraising projects are reviewed by the district under a 2002 policy that includes consideration of whether they “foster or exacerbate inequity.” But there are no specific mechanisms for making judgment calls, officials said.

At the community meetings last week, some parents suggested a network be created — perhaps through the countywide PTA — so that schools with fundraising talents could help schools that lack such know-how.

Others proposed concrete financial help: the creation of an equity fund so that a certain portion of money might go toward projects in poorer schools.

An example came up from Portland, Ore., where one-third of contributions over $10,000 are steered to such a fund. Portland’s fund is for teachers and staff — which Montgomery does not allow — but some pointed to the concept as a model.

Others did not embrace the idea or suggested voluntary contributions or a smaller diversion: 5 percent, 10 percent or 20 percent.

“If we knew we had to work 20 percent harder for everything we had, I think our contributions would drop,” said Bill Burchett, booster club president at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, who said fundraising is already a struggle.

Burchett said that while some may criticize million-dollar athletic fields at schools in more affluent areas, higher-needs schools are getting such fields as the schools are modernized. When private funding has been used for artificial-turf fields, he said, it’s been “a great break” for taxpayers and the school system.

Many at the meetings liked the idea of greater involvement, in a variety of possible ways, by the Montgomery County Public Schools Educational Foundation. “I think the foundation could play a greater role,” Yolanda Johnson Pruitt, the executive director, told those gathered one night.

Steve Schuck, another Richard Montgomery booster club officer, said the examination of facility donations raises issues of equity in other areas. What about other PTA and booster club fundraising, or athletic department or school construction funding?

“It should be a broader look at equity across the system accounting for money both going in and coming out,” he said.

Bruce Crispell, director of long-range planning for Montgomery schools, said that for now the issue is only facility fundraising. Following the community meetings last week, a report will be prepared, and a board committee is expected to consider the policy next school year.

Crispell’s office has consulted with other school systems in the region and found none with a practical way to protect against inequity in contributions, he said.

In his analysis, Crispell said, nearly half of 124 projects in the past three years cost less than $1,000. They included such things as the butterfly garden, tree planting, a walkway and a security gate .

To parent Melinda Anderson, such projects are not unimportant.

“The feeling you draw from a school sends a message to children, to parents, to staff,” she said. “If it enhances it for the better, it should not be limited to the financial capacity of those parents.”

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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