A Colorado town rallies to save its schools

Budget shortfalls spur parents and students, here and elsewhere, to donate crayons and hawk T-shirts.

In his spare time, high school junior Eric McIntyre finds himself heavily preoccupied with school work. Saving his school, that is.

He and a classmate recently created poorschool.com, a website built to lend support to their penniless district. In addition to posting news reports and providing a forum for community opinions, the site has raised hundreds of dollars from T-shirt sales and donations.

"Raising funds is just our way of trying to help," says co-creator Mitch Lubbers, a junior at Silver Creek High School.

The students' altruistic endeavor is characteristic of efforts around the community to pitch in as the St. Vrain Valley School District confronts a gaping $13.8 million budget shortfall. But the money collections here are hardly unique. In many school districts across the US students, parents, and community organizations have far more pressing fundraising concerns on their minds than passing around the annual signup sheet for girl scout cookies.

As states clip education budgets to cope with falling tax revenues and rising deficits, residents across the country are devising ingenious ways to save schools:

• In Michigan, the nonprofit East Lansing Educational Foundation is trying to bridge a $3.8 million budget deficit by creating gift registries for schools on the district's website.

• This week, Muskogee, Okla., resident Penny Kampf hosted a 24-hour telethon on a cable channel in an attempt to raise $2 million for local schools.

• Auto dealers in Conejo Valley, Calif., pledged to give $250,000 to six schools by donating $10 from each car sold.

Yet the rescue effort has been particularly impassioned and unusual in Colorado's St. Vrain Valley, a community at the toe of the Rockies where households range from the affluent to low-income.

Contributing basic school supplies

For a start, even though the financial crisis has been blamed on mismanagement by district officials, the community has been nothing but generous in its attempts to help schools in the area.

True, much of the fundraising is a matter of necessity since schools have had to freeze purchases of basic supplies such as copy paper and ink. The community, though, is digging deep in the post-gift giving season to ensure students are cushioned from the worst effects of the budget cuts.

"What we really wanted to show teachers is that we are behind the school, and that we want to help make it a little less painful for them," says Merrill Bohaning, whose son attends Prairie Ridge Elementary School in nearby Firestone, which is part of the school district.

The school created a mural featuring construction-paper hands, each printed with a classroom supply need. Parents can select a hand from the wall and purchase the requested item. But some have gone even further, buying magazine subscriptions for the library and giving each teacher a $25 gift certificate for groceries at Christmas.

Businesses in the area have also been quick to respond. A hospital established a fundraising program called Support-Our-Students (SOS), which already has raised some $45,000 - including $20,000 from Safeway and $10,000 from a Chevrolet dealership. Businesses are also being urged to "adopt" a school.

"Our main idea is that when you have a disaster in the community, you need to get out there and help," says Longmont United Hospital President Mitch Carson, who initiated the program, with support from the Chamber of Commerce.

Other local allies are also extending their goodwill with a personal touch. Teachers in the neighboring Boulder Valley School District, for example, organized a "sister school" program, pairing Boulder schools with St. Vrain schools. Boulder teachers are sending gifts to St. Vrain teachers, from fresh flowers, to pizzas delivered for lunch. "We're just letting our colleagues know we're thinking about them and wanting to help as they go through these difficult times," says Mike Alternbern, president of the Boulder Valley Education Association.

Not out of the woods just yet

Although a $9.8 million loan from the state will help the destitute school district erase it's deficit by July 2004, teachers in the 22,000-student district must endure a 7.1 percent pay cut as part of the official agreement. Even though the finance director resigned when the shortfall was revealed in November, the district attorney is still investigating the possibility of criminal charges. Meanwhile, some community members are demanding a recall of the school board.

"This is an emergency situation, and people want to step up and help out," says Dale McIntyre, Eric's father. "But a lot of people are hesitant [to donate] because you don't want to pour money down a rat hole." Indeed, for many parents, anger and frustration coexist with the desire to contribute, he says.

Part of the apparent appeal of the Silver Creek students' website - which draws hundreds of visitors daily - is the forum it provides for venting such frustrations. "People deal with the situation in different ways," observes Eric, sipping hot chocolate in the dining room of his home. "Some people take a serious approach, and others look for humor."

The idea of raising money for the district was sparked by site visitors themselves. With people purchasing T-shirts from as far away as Washington and Louisiana, the response has far exceeded the boys' expectations.

"The site is an eye-opener for people," says Mitch. "It makes them realize that this could happen in their school district, too."

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