WASHINGTON — THE competition is fierce, the atmosphere tense.
''Five-hundred!'' shouts one parent.
''Five-fifty!'' counters another.
''Going once, going twice, sold for $550!'' the auctioneer declares.
An antique fountain pen? Fine jewelry? Hardly. The winner has just bought a dinner party at his home with two Washington public-radio personalities. The money goes to John Eaton Elementary School, a public school in an upscale neighborhood.
Here in D.C., it's auction season. And school fund-raising goes well beyond rummage sales. These are big-bucks extravaganzas underwriting every aspect of academic life.
Auctions are funding scholarships at private schools and, controversially, salaries for science, art and music teachers in financially strapped public schools.
Nationally, school auctions are still largely the domain of private schools, but many public schools are having them, says Lance Walker, a Memphis-based auctioneer who runs school auctions throughout the country.
Here, in one of the nation's wealthiest metropolitan areas, even day-care centers are getting into the act. On almost any spring weekend, hotel ballrooms, church halls, and schools themselves are abuzz with parents milling around, writing in bids for items sold by ''silent'' auction and plotting strategies for winning ''live'' auctions. Thousands of donated items ranging from $10 gift certificates at the local bakery to a week in Chamonix, France, are sold.
''The best thing is they are community builders,'' says Barbara Lautman, auction director at the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington. Parents work together on planning, soliciting donations, and running the event. For businesses willing to contribute goods or services, donations are tax deductible and a chance to be seen supporting education. (There are now so many auctions in Washington that some businesses have established donation quotas or don't donate to auctions but have set up alternative fund-raising programs for nonprofit organizations.)
Families also offer up their own talents and assets -- such as homemade biscotti or a weekend in a beach house or a chance for a student to spend a day ''shadowing'' a parent with an interesting job. Children themselves get into the act: A brother and sister at the John Eaton auction offered homemade muffins and fresh-squeezed orange juice delivered on a weekend morning (value $15). Two sixth-graders offered a magic show for a birthday party.
Another advantage auctions may have over traditional school fund-raising ventures, such as candy sales, is that schools tend to keep a larger percentage of the profits.
For example, in auctions, the profit margin can be close to 90 percent of the revenues -- though that margin may shrink if the school rents a hall, hires an auctioneer, and spends heavily on advertising and printing up flyers.
But there is a downside. At public schools in Washington's less-well-off neighborhoods, such big-money events aren't even on the radar-screen. While the richer public schools can amass hefty bank accounts -- some exceeding $100,000, raised through series of fund-raisers -- to pay for additional teachers, classroom aides, and equipment, some parent groups are lucky to scrape together $1,000. (It must be noted, however, that poor schools qualify for Chapter 1 federal grants, while better-off schools don't.)
Suburban Montgomery County, Md., has responded to the inequity problem by forbidding parent groups from funding teachers' salaries. The National Parent-Teacher Association in Chicago also discourages parents from paying for services it believes the government should be providing, saying that parents should be putting their energy into lobbying and direct involvement with school activities.
In D.C., if parent groups were barred from hiring additional teachers, the city would likely lose many of the middle-class families it is eager to keep. So the school board stays quiet.
Not all parents are wild about the auction scene. Organizing the event and soliciting donations are a lot of work; time taken away from one's children. And it is not clear to some that the large amounts of money are necessary. ''It seems like they [auctions] have become an end unto themselves,'' says Loraine Wilson, a staffer at the organization Parents United for D.C. Public Schools, a parents advocacy group.
Laura Akgulian, a co-chair of Sidwell Friends' auction last year, notes that auction volunteers tend to be working mothers, a group not known for its spare time. But, she acknowledges, the school needs the money to fund scholarships.
And no one can deny that auctions produce entertaining stories. Like the two dads at East Silver Spring Elementary School who nearly got into a fistfight when one accused the other of crossing out his bid during the silent auction. Or the kids' auction at the Amazing Life Games Pre-school, where $5 plastic animals were going for upwards of $25 in fierce bidding among two- to five-year-olds (with parents' OK).
Or the $2,000 mink coat at the John Eaton auction that sat tucked in a corner like an unwelcome guest and went for only $250. Or the doctor who donated a vasectomy to the Parkmont School auction which no one bid on.
Usually, auctions are evening events, ''a chance to get parents together to talk without screaming children,'' says Kathleen Gundry, co-chair of John Eaton's auction, which netted $21,000. Other D.C. public-school auctions have raised upwards of $40,000 each.
At some private schools, the numbers swell dramatically. Sidwell Friends, where President Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, attends 10th-grade, netted $240,000 last year.
At least one school does better: the Center for Early Education, a private elementary school in West Hollywood, Calif., where children of the rich and famous learn their ABCs.
The Center's recent auction raised about $270,000, a total helped along by such items as a trip to New York to watch a rock star record his latest music video (a bargain at $6,000) and a reserved parking spot near the school ($10,000, no joke).
Ms. Akgulian, the Sidwell mother, would like to see her school help a poor D.C. public school organize its own auction.
At least one local business is all for it: The Tabard Inn, a quaint little hotel and restaurant in downtown D.C., happily donates a brunch for four to any school that asks (they get about 60 requests a year). ''I'm a graduate of D.C. public schools, and I wish more of them did auctions,'' says manager Josh Cohen.