Wealthy schools that raise money should share with poorer schools

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Editor Veronica Anderson

Editor Veronica Anderson

Next year’s round of budget cuts are on the table and according to one watchdog group, Chicago Public Schools has whittled its shortfall down to $45 million. A few months ago, the projected deficit was over $300 million. An increase in base level funding from the state is expected to net the district $100 million.

The rest is a combination of raising lunch fees, reducing costs at central office, tapping cash reserves and, the worst part, cutting programs in reading, math, special education and early childhood education.

The belt-tightening climate certainly makes a case for stepped up efforts to raise money from other sources. And since Arne Duncan has been sitting in the CEO’s chair, the district has done just that.

As our cover story reports, CPS has raked in close to $29 million from private sources so far this year—four times the amount the district collected in outside grants last year. These figures don’t include all of the money that donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation give directly to schools.

It also doesn’t take into account extra funds coming from competitive federal grants the district has won, a strategic move by Duncan to vie against other districts nationwide to win bigger grants.

Duncan makes raising money look easy. His likeable personality and collaborative leadership style have sealed partnerships between the district and a number of local foundations that are now steady supporters. Arne is the fundraising face for CPS.

Schools, too, are feeling squeezed, but for most of them, raising lots of outside money is an unreachable goal unless principals and parents are motivated, connected, lucky or some combination of the three. There’s certainly nothing straightforward about it. Imagine their challenge: Who do you know? And who do those people know? What does this person or that institution think about you and what you’re trying to do?

As always, the playing field is tilted and, as one administrator points out, favors schools that already have a lot going for them. Schools that do well are the ones that have better connected fundraising groups, says Principal Paul Zeitler of Sheridan Math and Science Academy. In fact, a Catalyst Chicago investigation into public school fundraising groups found only 30 of the city’s 600 plus public schools have parent or affinity groups that raise more than $25,000 a year, the level that requires they file tax returns.

All of the top fundraising schools have poverty rates far below the district average of 85 percent, and each of them raised more than $140,000, according to the most recent tax filings. The top fundraising school is LaSalle Language Academy, which hosts a formal dinner-dance every year that nets an average $80,000.

At the other end of the scale are schools like Bateman Elementary, where 90 percent of students are poor and parents struggle to keep a PTA going, much less raise money for events and extras.

A few high-poverty schools have done well. At Pirie Elementary, a bank president who is the principal’s father helped the school raise $23,000. Around the corner, Dixon Elementary collects $24,000 a year in rent for the cell phone tower perched on its roof.

But these few don’t make up for a lot more schools, some serving very needy children, that can’t tap the private funding vein at all. Diana Nelson of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform suggests that the district consider pairing top fundraising schools with those that are struggling to show them how it’s done.

Taking her idea a step further, how about asking these schools to share their wealth? Adopt another school serving mostly poor kids and give them some of the annual proceeds. There really is no way to teach people how to raise money when connections and a hefty bank account are your fundraising aces in the hole.

ABOUT US Catalyst editor Veronica Anderson won a Peter Lisagor award for her April 2005 editorial, “Game of chance would do a better job of distributing funds to schools.” The contest is sponsored by the Chicago Headline Club.