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Monday, Sept. 24, 2007 | Parents in Carmel Valley, Torrey Hills and Del Mar have a problem all-too-familiar to families in Proposition 13-saddled California: They want more education for their kids than their schools can afford to provide.

You might think, because these are some of the most affluent areas in San Diego County, that using some of the many private dollars floating around to bolster public schools’ annual property tax revenues wouldn’t be so hard. After all, while it’s frustrating — and wrong — that many poorer areas have struggling schools, that at least seems to follow the (twisted) logic of our economic and political systems: You have less, you get less.

The flip side of that logic should be that students in ultra-affluent areas get most everything they want. And that’s basically true — a tour of any of the Del Mar Union School District’s eight campuses might leave you thinking that its students suffer from an excess, rather than a lack, of material goods and parental attention.

But the spectacular difficulties encountered in those parents’ efforts to provide education once taken for granted in our nation’s schools — in the areas of science, music, technology and art — reveal that even money and dedication cannot easily fill the gaps in the public education California provides.

For over a year, myriad controversies and complexities have marred the operations of the Del Mar Schools Education Foundation, a nonprofit set up seven years ago by DMUSD parents to support their children’s educations. Those arguments and the long slog toward their resolution claimed leaders from both organizations, drove some parents into deep-skepticism, and incited a kind of intra-district rancor previously unheard of in these comfortable communities.

As a new school year begins, the foundation’s fundraising is significantly behind past years’ levels, while its leaders have gone literally back to the drawing board, struggling to describe a purposeful mission and with it, a fundraising strategy that offers the promise of success.

But success at what, exactly? Seven years in, that’s still a relevant question. An assessment of the organization conducted in the wake of what one volunteer called “the lost year” — when the foundation’s internal entanglements and inconsistencies were dragged, contentiously, into light — described a nonprofit that existed more for the school district’s reasons than its donors’. Though it wasn’t explicitly designed for the role, Del Mar’s education foundation had essentially become a support mechanism for the district’s so-called enrichment curriculum.

“What’s interesting is to go back and look at the mission. The written mission is not to fund the enrichment programs,” Lenore Lowe, the nonprofit consultant who assessed the DMSEF, told me. “This isn’t uncommon at all with nonprofit organizations — that they see a need, they set out to fill it and they follow the dollars.” That they say, “‘there’s program money available and so we’ll shift our mission a little bit.’”

Lowe is pushing the group’s new slate of leaders to reclaim independence for the organization, to be able to define a mission and a plan apart from the school district. Developing that identity, she argues, is at least as important as more pragmatic questions like how to meet this year’s fundraising goals.

Yet nailing down the mission of the organization isn’t the same as questioning whether it needs to exist. Lowe confirmed a reality that should be apparent to many parents: “There’s always going to be a need for supplemental funds for programs in education in California,” she said. If that’s true, then the recent history of Del Mar’s education foundation and its growing pains offer some important lessons.

Interestingly, the DMSEF managed to grow to raising more than $1 million per year with most in the community only dimly aware — if at all — of how exactly the organization used donations. This isn’t entirely its fault, because school budget matters are dry (you still reading?) and complex. (And I can’t help wondering here if the affluence of the community made it easier for parents to not pay attention: “You need $200 a year to teach my kid computers and clarinet? Here. Make it happen. Now I’m off to work.”)

Most people didn’t need to know details. They had the money to spare — many of them, anyway — and they knew it was going, somehow, to their local schools. But the consequences of this low-level of awareness were made apparent later on. Because they didn’t truly understand their foundation, most parents didn’t notice anything had happened when its mission shrank to effectively filling a hole in the district budget.

“They were reacting to a need that had been identified by the parents for the enrichment program, and so that’s … what they started to fund and that’s what they continued to fund — rather than taking a step back and saying OK, what could we fund if we were going to choose something?” Lowe found.

The lack of communication severely confounded the very serious transparency and management issues that were raised by some parents later on. When foundation board members began resigning in protest of the organization’s leadership, it polarized the community rather than immediately forcing an honest discussion about what was going on. When complaints about the organization were printed in the newspaper, people didn’t know whether they were serious or ridiculous.

Everyone — even the elected leaders of the district and the foundation — had to catch up on details before they could decide whether or not parents’ concerns had merit. The confusion delayed a solution, nearly halted fundraising, and brewed a great deal of unnecessary animosity.

Eventually many in the public came to believe that parents’ worries were substantive — to the relief of some former foundation volunteers. “I look back on it [and] I feel like I wasn’t crazy,” resigned board member Bonnie Haase said. “People are really now realizing that there were some things going on that shouldn’t have been happening.”

The group that had quietly run the foundation departed, leaving in charge a retired lawyer whose professional specialty had been corporate governance. Bob Gans, the new president, likes to talk, and he’s good at it. That seems to be helping.

“The most important thing is that we need to do a better job of defining our mission and communicating it,” Gans said. As the school year begins, he and the all-new leadership of the organization are basically presiding over a rebirth. The first seven years of the Del Mar Schools Education Foundation saw spectacular fundraising success. But it all happened without the organization laying out the basics, like a strategic plan and a guide for action in which the community had invested.

Though the affluence and interest of the community obviously helped — the Del Mar students still have their enrichment teachers, despite the troubles — it didn’t ensure a smooth path to better education for the families of Merge-land. If other communities hope to augment the paltry state funding for their schools (and many already do), there’s more than a few lessons here for them to learn. The first one being: all the eager parents in the world won’t save an organization they don’t deeply believe in.

Ian S. Port is Assistant Editor of the Carmel Valley News and Del Mar Village Voice — but he doesn’t really get it, because he doesn’t have kids. Right? Enlighten him with a comment below or at iansmithport@gmail.com.

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