Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2008 | Bronzed letters on La Jolla High School’s stucco buildings at announce the largesse of its parents and alumni: the Nierenberg Family Science and Technology Center, the Coggan Family Aquatic Complex. No plaque hangs over the flag-spangled classroom where Jerry Tellers teaches teens about world history — but it could.

He was slated to lose his job to budget cuts until the Foundation of La Jolla High School ponied up thousands of dollars for his salary. “I’m here because of them,” Tellers said.

Tellers is one of a handful of La Jolla High teachers whose salaries were shouldered by donors after San Diego Unified slashed budgets to balance a roughly $53 million shortfall from the state. Parents and alumni poured more than $500,000 into the storied school last spring through its foundation, rescuing Tellers and a French teacher, a Spanish teacher, and a teacher who taught an academic support class for middling students.

Teens rallied and held a phone-a-thon and adults opened their wallets to pay for teachers, for textbooks, and for staffers to keep its library open and functional. One student even made a tie-dyed “Save Mr. Tellers” T-shirt to goad his classmates to help. Not everything was spared: The school had to drastically pare back the hours of its librarian to one day weekly and bring in “library technicians” for two additional days. Still, the donations averted a crisis for La Jolla High, a coastal school with towering test scores, a sterling reputation, and a lengthy database of alumni.

But with deficits expected to again menace both San Diego Unified and its donors, parents and educators fear that fundraising may not be able to plug the next gap. More and more schools have turned to parents to cover costs that the school district once carried. The growing pressure on school foundations rankles parents and even educators who complain the government is underfunding schools and banking on parents in wealthy areas to make up the difference.

“We’re not supposed to have to raise money to keep our schools open,” said Principal Dana Shelburne.

The bleeding of state budgets has put new pressures on school foundations, a growing phenomenon in California and nationwide. Such foundations have proliferated across the state since the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which significantly capped local property taxes. Fearing the loss of local control and local cash, boosters banded together to fundraise for school sports, arts and technology, funneling the money back into their local schools through nonprofit foundations. The groups often exist alongside chapters of the nonprofit Parent Teacher Association, which charges dues and focuses more on parent education and volunteering.

“In the beginning they thought they would be a Band-Aid,” said Susan Sweeney, executive director of the California Consortium of Education Foundations. “Now they’re part of the educational landscape.”

Foundations are supposed to provide the extras for public schools — plush bonuses like the pool at La Jolla High — but year after year of budget cuts have prodded them to pay for supplies and staffers that once were basic. When a Del Mar foundation north of San Diego picked up the tab for gym classes, which are standard in California schools, legal consultants for the Del Mar schools concluded that its appeals were tantamount to charging a fee. But the line is blurry, and each round of cuts has blurred it more.

“In an ideal world, we would do the icing on the cake,” said Chris Grint, president of the Scripps Ranch High School Foundation. “That isn’t the case. And it hasn’t been for quite a long time.”

Foundations’ financial heft goes well beyond bake sales. They exist at schools and in neighborhoods rich, poor and in between, but tend to rein in more cash for small schools in affluent areas, said Jennifer Imazeki, an associate professor of economics at San Diego State University. The Del Mar school foundation, for instance, formerly employed paid staffers and lassoed more than $1 million in school funding annually; it has since cut an executive director and its revenues have dropped to roughly $600,000. Schools in wealthy areas tend to rely more heavily on fundraising because they can, and because they have to. They receive less or none of the federal and state funding that is earmarked for disadvantaged students than schools in the poorer areas of San Diego, giving them few options when ordinary state funding is slashed.

Jerabek Elementary in affluent Scripps Ranch, for instance, receives $678 less in government funding per student than Rosa Parks Elementary in City Heights — a 10.7 percent difference — because Rosa Parks is bolstered by more than $700,000 in specialized federal and state funding, according to the San Diego Unified budget. The Jerabek foundation raised roughly $340,000 last year and poured more than $50,000 of its donations into salaries for librarians and crossing guards. Rosa Parks and other schools in poor areas could turn to their specialized funds, which were not cut as severely, to blunt some of its cuts.

The gulf in funding exists for a reason. Schools such as Rosa Parks, where nearly every student comes from a low-income family, have steeper challenges than Jerabek in meeting state and federal goals for testing. And the numbers mask a hidden inequity in teacher distribution: Veteran teachers tend to cluster at schools in wealthier communities, as evidenced by the fact that the average Jerabek teacher earned more than $5,000 more annually than the average San Diego Unified teacher in 2006.

Nevertheless, the funding gap has mobilized parents in richer areas to raise money for their local schools. And their wallets are now an indispensable resource in keeping some schools staffed and supplied.

“More schools are doing this now because we have so drastically cut back,” said Rebecca Phillpott, policy analyst for the San Diego Unified community relations department. “Once upon a time library technicians were basic services. But it’s not like that anymore.”

Grint of the Scripps Ranch High School Foundation avoids paying for school employees with foundation cash, believing that wine tastings and golf tournaments are too fickle to hang a salary on. Parents are confused about whether foundations can legally pay for teachers. One lamented that her foundation was “hamstrung” from footing the bill for salaries. San Diego Unified policies state that its programs should be financed principally by local and state revenues, and that activities that schools are expected to conduct — such as gym class — should be paid by the district.

“I’m getting calls from schools now asking, ‘Can PTA fund this? Can PTA fund that?’ They want to know about positions, like librarians,” said Cindy McIntyre, president of the San Diego Unified Council of PTAs. “And we say ‘No, that’s the school district’s responsibility.’”

Phillpott said there are few firm lines on what school foundations can cover. They cannot volunteer for jobs that are normally held by school district employees, or pay outsiders for those jobs. But many funders are already paying for mundane materials such as printing toner and even chipping in for salaries at San Diego Unified schools.

Parents are splitting the costs of a librarian and a computer technician with the school district at Muirlands Middle School in La Jolla; at E.B. Scripps Elementary they devote more than $80,000 to help pay for a librarian, a nursing assistant, a clerk and lunchtime supervision for their children, and an additional $33,000 for “push-in” teachers who provide individualized help to students. A pop-up on its website exhorts parents to “PLEASE — Please” donate copying paper to the school.

“It’s bogus,” said Steve Petty, a parent at E.B. Scripps Elementary. “The parents are caught in a bit of a conundrum. You can fight the system and get nowhere. Or you can dig into your pocket and put money on the table.”

State legislators have bickered over raising taxes to cover the same costs that parents are now paying through pledge drives and phone-a-thons. Despite their frustrations with the endless pleas for donations, parents are more likely to give to their local school than to approve a tax hike that would end the pledging, Imazeki said. Distrust of Sacramento and even of San Diego Unified runs deep. Years of talk about a San Diego Unified foundation that would divvy up donations among all schools has not materialized.

And while well-heeled parents have grumbled but kept writing out checks, Shelburne said, that may not happen as the economy sinks into a recession. Donations are lagging at La Jolla High and in University City, where the local foundation has raised only $17,676 compared to $26,513 compared to last year. Sweeney hears of similar rumblings statewide. Experts warn that budget cuts could rival or exceed the shortfalls that California schools suffered last year. The same pressures that are pinching California budgets are pinching the pockets of needed donors.

“People figure they can eliminate (funding for) La Jolla because the parents will give the money,” said Sandy Erickson, treasurer for the Foundation of La Jolla High School. She added, “The pitfall is the school becomes more and more dependent on the foundation for its budget. What if fundraising isn’t successful at the same level? That’s what we’re facing now.”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the most recent fundraising numbers and staffing of the Del Mar school foundation. We regret the error.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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