A few weeks ago I set out to answer some basic questions about school foundations: What they are, how much money they raise, whether they’re assets or liabilities to San Diego Unified.

These nonprofit fundraising groups, which raise more cash in affluent parts of town, have been able to toss schools funding-lifelines in dark budget times. They’ve also helped schools pay for programs – like art or music – or hang onto teachers who’d otherwise be cut.

Beyond that, things get messy quickly. But I have picked up a few important lessons along the way. Here are five of them.

Inequity, or unfairness, can be a matter of perspective. But inequality in San Diego Unified schools is a matter of fact.  

The question of equity has lingered for years, mostly because there’s no clear answer.

Recently, Cal State Fullerton professor Sarah Hill and her colleagues released early findings from an upcoming report, “California Local Education Foundations: And the Rich Get Richer.”

Their argument is straightforward: Schools in wealthier areas get more money than schools in poorer communities. This contradicts a 1971 California Supreme Court decision, which said that schools across the state must have comparable funding.

“Inequality, in and of itself, isn’t bad,” Hill said. “We have to remember that when we’re talking about equity, we’re talking about what’s needed to achieve the outcomes we want.”

In other words, schools in poorer communities get more Title 1 funds, federal dollars for low-income students. But because the services their students need are more expensive, Hill says the difference is justified.

She’s found that most successful foundations are relatively small, and raise money for a particular school or area – parents are more likely to give if they know it’s going specifically to their child’s school, she said.

Hill said she even heard about one school where every classroom fundraises for itself, and the money those parents raise stays within that room.

But Laura Deidrick, director of University of San Diego’s Caster Family Center for Nonprofit Research, said the idea that individual school foundations cause broad disparities is something of a red herring if you don’t consider all sources of revenue.

“Just because one school can raise more private money doesn’t mean that they’re creating system-wide inequity. Research to date shows that education foundations simply don’t raise enough money to do that on a large scale.”

Deidrick, former executive director of the Coronado Schools Foundation, said that the biggest advantage is the community engagement that a foundation fosters – parents coming together and deciding what money is needed and how it should be spent.

And school board trustee John Lee Evans recently told me that it’s foolish to pass up the support foundations offer.

“No one who is willing to help and contribute should be turned away,” he said.

School foundations exist for a reason.

To understand why these nonprofit fundraising groups exist we have to look back to two major decisions that reshaped California’s education landscape.

In 1971 a California judge determined the way school districts were funded, based on local property taxes, created unconstitutional disparities. To counter, the judge required the state to fund poor districts to levels comparable to the wealthier districts.

In what many see as a reaction to the law, voters in 1978 approved Prop. 13, which capped property tax rates at a yearly 2 percent increase. That meant school districts had less money to spend.

Parents who run school foundations say Prop. 13 set the stage for perpetually underfunded schools, and that because schools in wealthier areas don’t get federal money set aside for low-income students, they get hosed in terms of funding.

In fact, until about 1970, California ranked near the top of the nation in terms of per-pupil spending. Today, the state is near the bottom.

Foundation parents see private fundraising as a necessary means to filling that gap. In effect, parents are taxing themselves to make up for the tax revenue local districts used to get.

The books are awkward and messy.

Today, there are about 55 foundations within San Diego Unified. But because the district doesn’t have to track them, it’s difficult to say for sure.

These nonprofits function independently from the district, and are responsible for keeping their own books. There are, however, a lot of holes.

“Foundation reporting is sketchy, but I wouldn’t say it’s intentionally sketchy,” said Hill.

Most often the groups are run by parents, but when their kids age out of a school, there’s a turnover in leadership. As a result, many foundations are delinquent in reporting their income to the IRS. Others have let their nonprofit status lapse, but never filed dissolution paperwork.

There are a few different kinds of fundraising groups, including Parent Teacher Association groups – which are kind of like foundations but with membership dues and more oversight – and boosters, which usually raise money for specific programs like football or band.

In short, it’s nearly impossible to track exactly how much is fundraised for San Diego Unified schools.

The first rule of school foundations is you don’t talk about school foundations.

Tracking fundraised money may get a little messy, but this part is clear: Many people don’t like to talk about foundations.

Most of my calls and emails to foundations leaders, and the school principals who lean on these nonprofits, went unreturned.

Fran Shimp, who runs a foundation in La Jolla, said parents and principals in La Jolla are wary they’ll be painted as elitists, when they’ve done nothing wrong.

Another parent said that in the past, parents reacted defensively when the district broached the topic, mostly because they thought foundations would be ended.

This reluctance to discuss finances cuts both ways. The principal of Euclid Elementary – a school that ranks near the top of the district in Title 1 funding – declined to talk about how her school spends these federal dollars. She wasn’t the only one.

Amy Redding, chair of a district advisory council, has pushed for greater transparency in San Diego Unified for years. Due in large part to her efforts, each school must now make its budget publicly available.

She said she’s learned that guardedness is a common trait in San Diego Unified.

“There’s a culture of fear in the district. We need to start getting these issues into the open and talking about them,” she said.

There’s more than one way to raise a buck.

Mike Snyder, president of the Clairemont Mesa Education Foundation, is something of an up-and-comer in the school foundation world.

His nonprofit has only been around for about two years, but school board members are already pointing to him, looking for ways to bring neighborhoods together to support schools like he’s doing in Clairemont.

Only don’t call what he does “fundraising.”

“I don’t do fundraising,” he said. “I don’t touch it. You don’t make enough so what’s the point?”

What most foundations do wrong, he said, is nickel-and-dime parents throughout the year. There’s only so much money to be made that way, and in many areas of San Diego, parents can’t afford to give at all. In those cases, asking them to donate could actually take money away from the family.

“I’m not going to approach parents for money. I don’t want them to give money. They’re supporting their child as a student by making sure the bills are paid and needs are met.”

Instead, Snyder acts as the middle man. He connects schools to business and organizations and creates partnerships.

Sometimes a business will give cash, but often an organization makes an in-kind donation like providing free educational programs or bringing a crew to the school to create gardens.

And the partnerships can be mutually beneficial. Snyder says that when supporting nonprofits are able to say they support students, especially low-income students, this helps their own fundraising efforts.

It looks like there’s something to that notion. The Clairemont Mesa Education Foundation, which supports 19 schools in the Clairemont area, has partnered with over 60 organizations.

The trick, he says, is getting school clusters to look for supporting organizations in their parts of town. But to do this, Snyder said people will have to let go of their “school-centricity,” – only wanting what’s best for their specific school.

“I don’t think the resources are as finite as we think. I think what we can get from Sacramento is finite,” he said.

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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