Private money, public schools

The surprising facts about funding inequities in Seattle's schools.

LAST SATURDAY, the philanthropic Alliance for Education raised almost a million dollars for Seattle public schools at a black-tie auction. The affair at the Sheraton Hotel was one of the biggest fund-raising events in the nation for a public school district, according to the Alliance, and one meant to foster the group's grand aim of making charitable giving as routine for K-12 education as it is for higher ed.

Given that some Seattle public schools are unable to afford workbooks, tutoring, and enrichment programs, it's undeniable that schools in the district need more money. And yet private fund-raising is a touchy matter. There is a perception that, even within a single district, there is deep inequality in the resources available to individual schools, with those in affluent areas able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in supplemental funds and those in poorer neighborhoods able to raise nothing at all. "It's a real difficult situation to deal with because you don't want to discourage parent involvement," says Pat Griffith, one of several School Board candidates who has addressed the matter this election season. The real financial situation, however, doesn't conform to stereotype.

True enough, a privileged few schools are able to raise awesome amounts of money. One top fund-raising school, Madison Park's McGilvra Elementary, raised $315,000 through its PTSA in the fiscal year ending in June 2000, according to a form filed with the secretary of state. It was a banner year, energized by a plan to buy two portable units, adding three extra classrooms. Once the portables were installed, the school was able to lower its class size in some grades to an enviable 20 pupils. The PTSA also paid for music, poetry, and computer teachers. At the same time, McGilvra parents spearheaded a separate fund-raising effort that has netted another nearly $400,000 in both public and private funds to renovate the school's athletic field.

Laurelhurst Elementary has taken fund-raising one step further by setting up its own endowment. So far, the Friends of Laurelhurst Foundation has raised $300,000, according to co-chair Jean Shearer. The plan is to raise $2 million, which would yield at least $100,000 annually in interest. And that's on top of the between $100,000 and $200,000 that the school's PTSA raises every year.

Schools that earn next to nothing from their parents are not burning with class rage, however. Fact is, they're benefited by a lot of funds that rich-kid schools aren't. Bailey Gatzert Elementary, with an overwhelming 95 percent of its students receiving free or reduced-price lunch, gets more than $300,000 a year from a federal program targeting poor kids, principal Jean Anthony points out. Principal Barry Dorsey, who presides over a predominantly poor student population at Martin Luther King Elementary, says many education-oriented charitable organizations are only interested in helping low-income kids.

What's more, poor kids now get a greater share of the basic educational dollars provided by the district than do rich or middle-class kids, thanks to the relatively new "weighted student formula" that attaches a different sum to each pupil, based on need. "We have $2,500 kids and $25,000 kids," says district Superintendent Joseph Olchefske, a fact that he says has caused a "significant redistribution" among schools.

There are schools that are financially squeezed more than others, however. Contrary to common wisdom, explains Bailey Gatzert principal Jean Anthony, "it's really those middle schools drawing from the middle classes that get stuck." Their kids aren't needy enough to get extra government and charitable dollars, she and others say, nor are they rich enough to bring in jaw-dropping checks from their parents and their parents' business connections.

Viewlands Elementary, in the Broadview neighborhood north of Ballard, is one such school, according to principal Cathy Profilet. The nearly $36,000 raised by the PTSA last year helps with teacher supplies, field trips and community-building events. But it isn't enough to pay for extra teachers, nor to buy all the workbooks that teachers request, nor to support the kind of before- and after-school homework center that Profilet would like to see.

Yet that only makes Profilet more dependent on private fund-raising, not less. The principal herself spends a lot of time writing grant proposals.

Here's where the Alliance for Education comes in. Though seen by some critics as an elitist, business-oriented organization, the Alliance justifiably sees itself as a means not only of boosting local public schools in general but also of leveling the playing field between schools. Having raised $58 million in its six-year existence, it funds an array of programs to which schools can apply. Viewlands, for instance, received $10,000 from the John Stanford Endowment managed by the Alliance, which the school used for reading tutors. Through the Alliance, Viewlands also got $24,000 this year from the massive $25 million grant donated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Profilet plans to use the money in part for teachers' professional development.

Though effusive about the benefits of such grants, Profilet acknowledges that the paperwork attached takes away time that could be spent in the classroom and on the playground. As Seattle schools become a national model for private fund-raising, that seems to be a new reality of life for educators here.

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