These are hard fiscal times indeed for public schools. What with inflation, reductions in federal and state aid, and local tax caps, the days of easy money are clearly over.
Instead of bemoaning their fate, more and more schools these days are finding ways to generate income on their own.
Fund raising is nothing new in American schools, of course. Most have held paper drives, PTA bake sales, and the like to finance extras from time to time. But nowadays many schools are organizing fund-raisers regularly and in earnest, and using the hefty profits to keep valued programs going.
For a school on a no-frills budget, fund raising may be the major or even the sole source of revenue for activities outside the classroom. For example, Castle Park Junior High in Chula Vista, Calif., relies on the substantial profit from its campus store to finance student activities.
Larry Laird, student council adviser for Castle Park, helped students open the store in 1969, then watched as it evolved from a nice extra into an economic necessity.
''Since Proposition 13, California has gone from being No. 6 in the nation in money spent per student to something like 22nd or 23rd,'' he said. ''In many areas the schools have to cut out programs that make a well-rounded experience for the students, unless some other organization can pick up the slack.''
When Castle Park's athletic program was cut from the budget a few years ago, the ''slack'' that needed picking up was school spirit. So profits from the student store were used to finance a strong assembly program, intramural sports, field trips, and other spirit-building activities.
Like many other school administrators, Mr. Laird feels extracurricular activities are much more than frills; they are a strong incentive for students to come to school every day and get involved.
Castle Park attributes the notable success of its student store to three factors: an accessible location where students can congregate, careful organization of inventory and staff, and a thorough understanding of its student-consumers' needs.
Basic stock like pencils, paper, and notebooks are considered necessities and are sold at little or no profit. Most of the store's $10,000 yearly profit comes from the sale of snack foods.
While small schools tend to go for a single, high-income project like a student store or a candy sale, larger schools are more likely to diversify. In a large senior high school the individual clubs, particularly athletic teams, are capable of earning their own way.
South Lakes High School in Reston, Va., is one of many schools to prove that a well-rounded sports program can be virtually self-supporting. This school uses the gate receipts from its spectator sports -- football, basketball, baseball, wrestling - to finance its entire athletic program. The other teams, like track and girls' softball, pull their fiscal weight by holding ''jogathons,'' ''weightliftathons,'' and even ''cartwheelathons.''
According to Carl Zaleski, South Lakes director of student activities, the track team's runathon can pull in as much as $2,000 in pledges. Each semester the booster club adds to the kitty another $1,000 from its semiannual fruit sale. These efforts, plus the ticket sales, pay for sports equipment, uniforms, officials, lights, telephones, and transportation. The only funds the program receives from the Reston school board are supplements paid to coaches.
South Lakes High is an encouraging example for the growing number of schools whose sports programs have been hit by budget cuts.
''I cannot believe, if a school works at it, why any sport should go defunct, '' Mr. Zaleski observes.
Strategies for raising funds are as varied as the uses for them. The most popular are food sales, particularly candy sales. The demand, it seems, is ever-dependable.
''Let's face it, everybody likes candy,'' said one PTA chairwoman explaining why her elementary school chose a candy sale to earn $3,000 for a new photocopier.
Pizza sales are another favorite, as much for the fun as for the profit. It seems that 40 kids can produce 1,000 pizzas in less than two hours, according to one report. At a 50 percent profit on each $1.50 pizza, a single sale can net between $500 and $2,500.
Some schools offer a service, rather than a product, so they can make a solid contribution to their community while earning the badly needed bucks. Schools in Baltimore, for instance, sponsor an occasional ''truck wash'' for their city's fleets of dirty trucks and buses.
Weed-a-thons, trash-bashes, community work days, and recycling projects are other ideas from the files of the National Association of Student Councils in Reston, Va.
The quest for a new and captivating fund-raiser offers a singular creative challenge, but students are proving equal to the task. During brainstorming sessions, budding entrepreneurs are hatching projects to rival Madison Avenue's cleverest.
To raise money for their high school, two Arkansas students with a taste for the untried decided to set an endurance record for riding a seesaw. They spent 17 days eating, sleeping, and living on a seesaw set up in a local shopping mall.
The feat earned them $3,500 in contributions from merchants and other sponsors. The money was used to landscape a park area in front of their school.
A Midwestern high school with a flair for the dramatic staged a ''Shave It or Save It'' battle over a history teacher's beard. Students, faculty, and staff made contributions to either the Shave It or the Save It fund, depending on how well they like the beard.
In the end the Shave It fund collected the most contributions, so the whiskers got the hot towel and razor. Proceeds from both funds totaled more than
Lively imaginations notwithstanding, schools need not come up with their own moneymaking ideas at all. Big business stands ready to do it for them.
A number of recently established companies offer a wide range of prepackaged fund-raising programs, complete with product lines, promotional themes, incentive prizes, and the personal guidance of local sales representatives.
Jostens of Minneapolis is one such company. In September this manufacturer of yearbooks and class rings added a fund-raising division to serve elementary schools in 16 cities across the country.
''A need that we had heard about in talking to elementary school people was support in their fund-raising activities,'' explains Kenneth Maki, director of marketing at Jostens yearbook division.
''We found that most schools do, in fact, do fund raising at some point, and although they could find a wide variety of products, the one key element missing was help in selling the products. . . . More than just going in and selling, our representatives actually provide a full service, from selection of the products to helping parents and students implement the program.
''Schools can choose from a variety of companies offering resellable goods and services -- everything from T-shirts to magazines to megaphones in school colors.
It is wise here to sound a warning note. Some companies don't carry good-quality products and should be avoided; others pander to lower tastes and to gambling temptations. Even pornographic and X-rated movies have made their way onto college campuses hiding as ''fund-raisers.''
But for sheer profitability, commercial fund-raising programs are hard to top. One very small high school in Topeka, Kan., annually reaps well over $20, 000 from its sale of candy and family-approved magazines furnished by Q.S.P. Inc.