Beyond bake sales: Public schools target private funds

Franklin McCallie, principal of Kirkwood High School, points to an open field next to a half-century-old gymnasium. A thin dress shirt and his fervor are his only protection against the winter cold.

"Right there. That's where I want it," he says enthusiastically. "It'll cost $5 million. That's a lot, but the kids need it and the kids will use it. We gotta have it."

Mr. McCallie is after a new athletic complex. But the veteran educator doesn't have $5 million. Neither does the school board, and even if it did, McCallie can't be sure his school would be the recipient of such funds, rather than some other school in the district.

So the principal in this middle-class district just outside St. Louis looked to a more-promising source: parents and alumni.

Public school fundraising has long meant bake sales for band uniforms and soccer travel. But with public funding barely keeping up with the necessities of salaries, textbooks, and lab equipment, administrators and involved alumni are taking a page from colleges and universities and mounting large-scale development efforts.

The need is readily apparent. The 1980s saw real per-pupil spending in the United States grow at 3.75 percent per year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

That figure fell to less than 1 percent per year through most of the 1990s. An uptick in enrollment, greater spending on federally mandated special education programs, and tax and spending limits imposed by states have all put limits on extras.

Stepping into the breach are philanthropists and foundations pledging hundreds of millions of dollars for general purposes, such as curriculum-based programs. They range from a $150 million grant from the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds to a $350 million commitment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Annenberg Foundation gave a challenge grant of $500 million.

But with the public school system close to a $400 billion a year enterprise, even such generous gifts are spread thin when divvied up between hundreds of schools. They rarely cover big-ticket capital projects. And that has opened the door to local fundraising.

From the Bronx to Nebraska

The public school/private donation trend has taken root in some of the most famous public high schools in the land. Three years ago, Bronx High School of Science, with five Nobel Prize winners among its alumni, established the goal of a $10 million endowment fund. Even more ambitious is the campaign by Boston Latin School. The nation's oldest public school, founded in 1635, launched a $50 million fundraising effort last year, and has already secured pledges for over half that amount.

More-typical public high schools across the country have also jumped on the bandwagon. In Nebraska, Omaha-Burke High School graduate Dave Wehner is trying to raise close to $30 million. He hopes to replace the library at the school with an information technology center, add new classrooms and a common area, and construct a triple gym to replace an antiquated facility originally intended only for boys.

Raising money privately is not easy. A local organization has offered several million dollars in exchange for sponsoring a portion of the athletic facility, but otherwise, pledges total less than a million dollars.

"The money is out there," Mr. Wehner says, "but it's a tough sell to get people to give money for schools that receive tax dollars."

In this case, novelty is not always helpful. Sophisticated philanthropists, Wehner notes, fear that if they contribute millions of dollar to a public project, a precedent will be set and they will be expected to support public projects on a regular basis.

Names carved into the $1,500 seats

The need for money can spark creative approaches. Ravenna High School, outside Akron, Ohio, copied professional sports franchises and sold personal seat licenses to help finance construction of an 8,000-seat football and soccer stadium. Seats between the 40-yard lines sold for $1,500. Donors have their names inscribed on their seats and rights to them for life, but still have to pay for tickets. Prices drop to $1,000 for less-desirable seating, but all plans include VIP parking and a five-year payment option.

The "Ravens" enjoyed their first full season in the new stadium last fall.

One big hurdle for fundraisers is drawing from middle-class families. While wealthy alums often associated with private schools may be able to afford donations of $100,000 or more - working with a more mixed-income crowd is a painstaking process.

"Even when people are putting in two, three, four thousand dollars at a time, it's amazing how long it takes to get to a million," Verna Teasdale says.

She was an early supporter of plans to privately fund a new auditorium at Bowie High School near Baltimore.

A performing-arts program was flourishing at the school, but major productions were staged in the school's cafeteria. After a 10-year effort that saw a parent group raise a combination of private and public money, ground was broken last year for an auditorium that will double as a community center.

Equity concerns

Not everyone is pleased with the new emphasis on private fundraising. States have long grappled with how to distribute money more equitably between rich and poor school districts. In some locales, states may be obligated to match private dollars raised in well-to-do districts with equal public expenditures in poor districts. If money is not available for the latter, private fundraising could be discouraged.

But Wehner doesn't buy the equity objection. "The inner city schools in Omaha are as nice or nicer than the suburban schools. They're older, but they've been renovated with public money - millions of dollars. They're ahead of [the high school he's raising money for] now, in terms of facility."

At Kirkwood High School, Earl Walker was the first large-scale private donor. He and his wife, Myrtle, gave several hundred thousand dollars for a commons at the school and other improvements. He has pledged $1 million for a swimming pool.

Perhaps because economic necessity forced him to go straight to work after his school days - the near-octogenarian still works full-time as president of his six-factory toolmaking company - his philanthropic sights are set on Kirkwood High rather than a college or university.

Walker also believes concerns about equity are somewhat misplaced. "Kirkwood High School is integrated, so any new facilities there will benefit all kinds of children," he says. "Besides, if this kind of fundraising catches on here, maybe it will catch on elsewhere and benefit all of public education."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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