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The system has existed for years. School foundations, or parent-fundraising groups, funnel millions of dollars into San Diego Unified schools to pay for teachers and extra programs – like art or music.

The district doesn’t begrudge the charity. But neither does it bother to oversee the ins and outs of how the money is spent. It has looked the other way as foundations hired staff members in ways that contradicted district policies.

And the broader question of whether foundations exacerbate inequalities hangs unanswered.

Last summer, as Cindy Marten slid into her new role as superintendent, Scott Lewis pressed her on whether allowing parents to pay for extras at certain schools was a fair deal.

She said there’s a difference between “fair” and “equal” – what’s needed at one school may not be at another – but that it’s her job to make sure all students are getting high-quality educations without relying on parents to subsidize it.

The conversation hasn’t advanced much in the last nine months. And school foundations show no sign of slowing the fundraising train.

Parents who run foundations say that raising money to fill funding gaps at schools is not only fair, it’s necessary.

Schools in affluent areas like La Jolla get less money per student and miss out on Title 1 funds, federal money that’s sent to schools with high numbers of low-income students.

Without the fundraising support, foundations argue, the educational programs that help earn these schools the best test scores in the district wouldn’t be possible. In addition, they couldn’t afford to bring in classified staff to help make for smaller class sizes.

Focusing on money as a measure of fairness misses the point, said Fran Shimp, co-president of the foundation at La Jolla’s Muirlands Middle School.

“Equity doesn’t come down to money, it comes down to meeting students’ needs,” she said.

Still, the amount of money that foundations are raising – and the latitude they have to spend it – is remarkable.

The five schools that make up the La Jolla cluster raised an aggregate total of $2.1 million in 2011, based on the groups’ tax filings.

Bird Rock Foundation, which is connected to Bird Rock Elementary in La Jolla, raised more than $466,000 that year.  The nonprofit’s website says its money goes to keep class sizes small, and pays for an array of programs like music, science, technology and art.

And while parents in other schools are still grappling with the meaning of Common Core – the new education initiative that revamps standards for each grade – the foundation at La Jolla’s Torrey Pines Elementary funds a supporting math instructor who helps train teachers and shape lessons so students can hit the ground running on the new curriculum.

That foundation, which also supports a writer’s workshop to help students write “more deeply, deliberately and conceptually,” collected more than $325,000 in 2011.

Shimp says that schools and fundraising groups have been misrepresented as a group of elitists who want to play by their own set of rules. In reality, she says, they’re simply parents invested in their children’s education and doing what they can to help.

“Nobody is complaining about inequity as far as I can tell,” said Shimp. “And that includes parents at our schools, which get the least amount of funding. If anyone has reason to complain – it’s us.”

Title I Money vs. Foundation Money

One reason that schools with a high number of low-income students get a bigger slice of funding is because those students often need extra language, reading and emotional support.

In short, Title 1 schools get more money because what they need costs more.

Schools in the Hoover cluster, which covers a swath of City Heights, received the most Title 1 funds in 2011-2012. One school in that cluster, Rosa Parks Elementary, got about $370,000 – the most in the district that year.

But foundation money and Title 1 cash isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison.

Title 1 funds are meant to be spent on programs that boost student achievement. Paying for classified staff to lower the teacher-to-student ratio falls under that umbrella.

They can also subsidize salaries for other kinds of staff, but they’re not supposed to go toward music, arts and physical education teachers – a sizable chunk of what foundation money is spent on.

For years the district has underfunded music programs and looked to slash them further when the budget was tightest. Music programs supported by foundations, however, would have some cushion because their funding isn’t based wholly on the district’s budget.

And schools certainly don’t have the discretion to use Title 1 funds to hang on to beloved teachers, which happened at La Jolla High in 2008.

That year, parents and alumni ponied up and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to subsidize salaries and save teachers from the budget ax.

Experienced Teachers

Real talk: Even if the money was equal, schools in affluent areas have advantages that other schools don’t.

Apart from the supplemental programs that foundations help make possible, schools in low-income neighborhoods tend to get teachers with less experience.

Teachers in the Scripps Ranch High cluster – where there’s more foundation money than Title 1 money – averaged about 17.5 years of experience last year, according to data from the state Department of Education.

That was three more years than the district average, and four years more than average teacher tenure in the Lincoln cluster, where all schools get Title 1 funds.

Longer tenures don’t necessarily make for more effective teachers, but test scores indicate experienced teachers are doing something right.

Last year, the Scripps Ranch and La Jolla Clusters – whose teachers have more experience than the district average – earned the district’s two highest API scores, a composite score based on student assessments.

The Crawford and Lincoln clusters, in southeastern San Diego, earned the two lowest. Teachers at those two schools had less experience than the district average.

Looking the Other Way

Last month, a San Diego Unified spokesman told VOSD that the district doesn’t have a written policy as to how it ensures a foundation makes good on a promise to pay for a teacher.

But it turns out the district does have a policy drafted – it just never bothered to enforce it. 

John May, who helps fundraise for the foundation at Torrey Pines Elementary, was there in 2009 when the district decided to iron out the guidelines on how foundations can give.

May said that when former Chief of Staff Bernie Rhinerson called a meeting with foundations, parents thought the fundraising groups were going to be ended.

“When parents first got to that meeting, it was like farmers with pitchforks coming for Frankenstein’s monster,” he said.

Eventually, though, everyone agreed on a few rules. Among them: Funding for a foundation-hired position must be paid before the start of a new school year.

The district appears to be looking the other way on the rule. Several schools that work with foundations are spending more fundraised money than they have.

But May said that most foundations are already abiding by these rules.

“If they wanted to implement clear guidelines, I wouldn’t fight them,” said Shimp.

What Other Districts Have Tried

A few school districts to the north, like Del Mar and Santa Monica-Malibu, wrestled with many of the same equity questions that San Diego Unified faces. So they made some changes.

Del Mar, for example, combines its individual fundraising efforts into one, district-wide foundation. The fundraised money is then split evenly between eight schools based solely on student enrollment.

The district requires that the foundation pays a year in advance for staff it plans to hire or programs it intends to fund.

Dave Wojtkowski, treasurer of the Del Mar Schools Education Foundation, said this approach promotes transparency and sidesteps the danger of overspending.

Linda Gross, executive director of the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation, said her district operates along similar lines: Fundraised money goes into a district-wide pot, and one school can’t fund a program unless there’s money to fund the same program in every school.
Gross said there’s been pushback from some parents along the way, but overall they’re achieving greater balance between schools.

“Opportunities shouldn’t come down to which ZIP code students are from,” she said.

Shimp, on the other hand, thinks a district-wide foundation that sought grants and support from business is a good idea, but is adamant that ending school-specific foundations wouldn’t fly.

San Diego Unified is too big, she said, the differences between student needs too great.

“There’s just no way we could see that working. There wouldn’t be enough money to go around. Our parents would probably stop giving if that were the case.”

She’s got a point.

With about 130,000 students, San Diego Unified is more than 30 times the size of Del Mar and 11 times the size of Santa Monica-Malibu. And in contrast to the smaller districts, more than half of San Diego Unified students qualify as socio-economically disadvantaged.

But there are alternatives, said Wojtkowski. Some districts have a hybrid model where a certain amount of funds parents raise go to their school, and a smaller portion goes into a district-wide pot.

And while Gross and Shimp disagree on how foundations should be run, they agree on this: Equity is about more than money.

Gross said she often hears the argument that school-specific foundations level the playing field for schools that don’t receive Title 1 funding.

“Let me ask you this,” she said. “All funding being equal, would you want your kids to go to (Title 1) schools?”

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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