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If you’re a parent whose child attends Jerabek Elementary, a public school in Scripps Ranch, you’ll be asked to donate $1,000 every year to the school’s nonprofit foundation to help pay for librarians, nurses and staff to help supervise your kid at lunchtime.

If your child goes to Bird Rock Elementary, a public school in an affluent La Jolla neighborhood, you’re asked to give money to keep class sizes small. All students at Bird Rock have the potential to succeed, the school’s foundation website says, but “it requires a special investment to help that potential flourish.”

Every year, pleas for donations like these go out across San Diego Unified schools. The message is simple: Parents need to give money to pay for teachers and programs that the school district otherwise won’t provide. And every year, parents respond by funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into public schools by way of these nonprofits.

But all this money comes with little oversight. San Diego Unified has broken promises to monitor how school foundations fund-raise and spend their cash.

That raises a problem: Taxpayers are on the hook if foundations don’t raise the money they say they’ll have to pay for extra staff. District officials say they don’t know if that’s happened.

The lack of oversight also conflicts with a central concern of Superintendent Cindy Marten, who’s made it her primary goal to eliminate inequity in district schools. She says that foundations, which provide only certain schools extra services and staff, can make it more difficult to achieve equity.

District officials’ failure to ensure foundations are making good on their promises means the district could be subsidizing a system its own superintendent believes could complicate the problem she’s trying to solve.

How Foundations Work

School foundations in San Diego have evolved from PTA bake sales and other homey ways to make a buck. These days, they’re legally registered nonprofits that can rake in the dough.

Bird Rock’s foundation brought in more than $330,000 in 2012. Jerabek’s got $74,000. They pay for teachers’ salaries, music and art programs and substitute teachers to relieve full-time staff so they can take time for training.

Any parents who are willing to do the legwork can start a foundation. They need to register with the state attorney general, who’s the ultimate authority on public charities. They also need to file for a nonprofit status with the IRS.

Foundations are expected to keep neat books, and school principals are supposed to verify a foundation’s nonprofit status before the group begins raising funds for the school. But some principals don’t bother.

In 2012, the county Grand Jury found that a group of parents who weren’t even part of a registered nonprofit collected donations on behalf of a San Diego Unified school. Then-Superintendent Bill Kowba blamed principals, but said the district didn’t have the time or resources to routinely audit these nonprofit groups.

Moises Aguirre, a district spokesman, said there’s no written policy for foundations that want to hire staff. This year, 33 staff members in the district have their salaries wholly or in part paid for by foundations, he said.

But Aguirre doesn’t know how much money the foundations raise each year. He doesn’t know how many foundations exist. And he doesn’t know whether the district is footing the bill for foundations that don’t meet their fundraising goals.

The groups don’t have to pay upfront for the teachers and staff members they hire for the school. Instead, they write a kind of promissory note, agreeing to pay when the bill comes due at the end of the year.

That means the risk for foundations not hitting their fundraising goals falls on the district. If the money doesn’t come in, taxpayers have to make up the difference.

Aguirre said he’s unaware of any foundation sticking the district with a bill in the recent past. But he can’t say for sure because the district doesn’t track foundation spending.

Based on the district’s own rules, Aguirre should be able to know the answer.

The District’s Broken Promises

For a long time, the district has had the ability to investigate school fundraising groups. District rules allow school officials to request financial statements from foundations and audit their books whenever they want. The district, though, doesn’t do it.

In 2009, district leaders wanted to go even further. They believed the district needed to get a handle on a burgeoning crop of school foundations because of their potential to create a financial liability on the district.

“We’re painting ourselves into a corner if we say let’s keep doing it, because it isn’t working the way it is,” then-trustee John de Beck said at a school board meeting.

The school board voted to set up a panel of parents, community leaders and district officers who would create a comprehensive policy to deal with foundations.

That never happened. Aguirre said he didn’t know why the panel disbanded or exactly when. He said it stopped meeting sometime before Marten became superintendent without writing a policy.

Marten told VOSD that foundations have been “tossed around like a hot potato in the district.”

“Apparently nobody’s dealt with it long enough to find a solution,” Marten said.

Marten’s made it one of the district’s primary missions to narrow the achievement gap and provide equitable education across neighborhoods. But foundations provide services only to the certain schools that have them, and much of the money goes to schools in the district’s wealthier neighborhoods.

Foundation supporters, however, say that these nonprofit groups are essential at schools in more affluent areas, which don’t qualify for the federal Title 1 funds. Those dollars are earmarked for low-income students, but face restrictions on where they can be spent.

The fact the foundation system has flourished, Marten said, means that parents fear their children aren’t getting what they need. It’s her and the school board’s job to help change that, she said.

Marten said the community should discuss the role foundations ought to play in public education.

“How much money do foundations give the district altogether? What would happen if there were no more foundations? I think we need to know the answer to these questions,” she said.

Still, the district has no immediate plans to take advantage of its existing rules on foundation fundraising or develop new ones.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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