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Schools Lean Hard on Old Foundations

Support groups now underwrite basic educational needs -- not just 'extras'

June 08, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Cash-strapped school districts from Beverly Hills to San Francisco increasingly are pressing their foundations -- once a source for extras such as teacher grants and library books -- to underwrite basics such as teacher salaries and textbooks.

Across the state, dozens of other districts are looking beyond parent groups and reviving defunct foundations or bolstering existing ones to support them in the tough times ahead as the state grapples with a $35-billion shortfall. It's not just affluent communities being asked to help -- on Tuesday night, the board of trustees in the Ocean View School District in largely working-class northwest Orange County voted to form a nonprofit education foundation.

"No longer are foundations just providing boutique programs in elite communities," said Howie Schaffer, a spokesman for the Public Education Network, a coordinator of community groups involved with schools nationwide. "Schools are losing the ability to provide their core curriculum, and they're looking to foundations to pick up the slack."

Representatives from about 30 school districts -- double the usual number -- attended spring training sessions on how to start foundations or stimulate fund-raising in dormant ones, according to the California Consortium of Education Foundations, which represents more than 400 such groups around the state.

Still, foundation and district officials caution against relying too much on foundations to pull schools through rough economic times. Although organized nonprofits are more dependable than even the most ardent parent groups, they say, schools need to seek sources of income that won't fluctuate, such as property taxes. As part of the consortium's yearly survey, it is trying to track how district foundations have changed what they fund because of budget cuts, said Susan Sweeney, the group's executive director.

Foundations originally created with limited scope, such as sending sixth-graders to camp, in many cases now are being asked to broaden their goals. Some have been raising money to underwrite traditionally free programs, such as athletics and transportation.

In upscale Los Gatos, for example, the school district foundation this spring boosted its annual fund-raising goal from $185,000 to $1 million, earmarking the additional money for teacher salaries.

The Beverly Hills Education Foundation is trying to raise $1.4 million from parent donations -- each family has been asked to give $486.67 -- to restore reading aides, counselors and clerical positions pruned from the district's $56-million budget. Normally, it raises $250,000 a year for teacher grants.

"Education foundations are not meant to take the place of [state] funding," Sweeney said. "Clearly, though, they're being asked to take a larger role and raise more."

Most of California's local education foundations were created after 1978's Proposition 13 cut back property taxes and curtailed a dependable source of local school revenue. Many later became inactive as state funding became more equitable.

When foundations are too successful, pressure on lawmakers to fund schools adequately lessens, educators say. Because foundations cannot fully replace public funding, especially in poorer areas, the most effective groups combine local fund-raising with lobbying of legislators, Schaffer said.

The notion that foundations are successful only in wealthy communities "is bunk," he said.

The San Francisco Education Fund, in a city where many children come from poor families, is trying to raise an additional $1.18 million in two years, doubling its commitment to its peer resource program and increasing the number of teacher grants, said Kathy Turner, executive director of the fund.

Powerful foundations, no matter how affluent, must engage a broader spectrum of donors than parents, Turner said. Her group, for example, has succeeded in tapping businesses and a more unlikely group of donors: parents who send their children to private schools.

In Orange County, the Irvine Public Schools Foundation, which last year raised $4 million -- the most of any California district group -- has received dozens of calls in the last few months from districts aspiring to similar success, foundation chief Tim Shaw said.

A history of funding inequities for Irvine schools has meant that the foundation in recent years has been paying for basics: smaller class sizes and summer school, as well as the district's art, music and after-school programs. The foundation is heavily supported by the Irvine Co., the county's largest landowner, businesses such as Taco Bell, and parent donations.

Being in an affluent community helps, Shaw said. But foundations in areas with larger numbers of poor families have just as much opportunity to be successful because they are eligible for grants that Irvine is not, he said. Some of those districts may have an easier time convincing large companies to donate.

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