It’s another sign of the budget times: Parents at Bird Rock Elementary are being asked to donate $1,000 per student to help save two classroom teachers, three support teachers and other experts to help teach kids about art, music, computers, physical education and the library. An email from a parent committee pleads:

We are all probably experiencing concern and confusion about why public schools are in this position. Those discussions are important and complex. But simply put, an education of Bird Rock’s caliber is not at all “free”. We will either pay from our wallets, or it will cost our children in crowded classrooms and a limited enrichment curriculum. Our school is known for offering a private school-level education in a public school, thanks to the commitment of our parents, teachers and community.

“The message is ‘Do what you can,’” said Principal Sally Viavada. “It’s an outrageous amount of money to donate. But the bottom line is, what’s it going to take to save our teachers?”

Budget cuts have put bigger and bigger demands on parent fundraising, most markedly in affluent areas: La Jolla High parents helped shoulder the salaries of several teachers a few years ago, we reported. We later reported that dozens of school employees were being paid for by school foundations:

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.”

The phenomenon raises a few worries for the school district. Nobody wants to turn away donations, but if parents can pay to keep teachers in one part of town and not another, it could lead to inequities between schools. Schools that plug for money also have to be careful that they don’t cross the line from asking for voluntary donations to demanding illegal fees.

And the school district has been uneasy about the employment rights of workers paid for by parents, including their ability to bump out other employees during budget cuts. If a foundation pays for an employee but then their money runs out, they ask, do they stay on the district payroll?

San Diego Unified did some soul searching about school foundations and what they should pay for a few years ago. But it never created any new, formal policies or guidelines. Typically, the district recommends that any workers paid for by foundations be put on year-to-year contracts, but it still handles issues on a case-by-case basis, said district relations chief Bernie Rhinerson.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter:

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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