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Bake Sales Go Strictly Black Tie

Elite academies have elevated fundraising to high art in order to tap well-heeled parents.

May 21, 2006|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

How much would you ante up for a private poetry reading by the stars of the television hit "Desperate Housewives," a walk-on role in a Will Ferrell movie or tickets to the "American Idol" finale, offered by Idol judge Randy Jackson?

These were some of the items up for auction recently at fundraisers held by a few of Los Angeles' most elite private schools, where one-of-a-kind gifts elicit furious bidding wars among parents already paying sky-high tuition.

Spring is the high season for these fundraisers. They provide a unique window into a Los Angeles culture where alumni and parent connections translate into fabulous balls and galas that can add hundreds of thousands of dollars to budgets, academic programs and financial aid.

Many Southern California schools have lifted the traditional rummage sale to high art. Their goal is to acquire auction items that are rarely accessible to the general public, such as private lessons from professional athletes or musicians, walk-on speaking roles in television shows and movies, lunch with celebrities (usually including several friends), VIP invitations for the Academy and Grammy awards and even U.S. Senate gallery seats for special events.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 24, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Private school fundraisers: A story in Sunday's Section A on private school fundraisers identified author Frank McCourt as a parent at Harvard-Westlake School. He is not. A literary evening featuring a discussion of one of McCourt's books was auctioned at a Harvard-Westlake event. McCourt did not attend.

Such fundraising is in sharp contrast to the more modest efforts of most public and many private schools, which, lacking celebrity connections and high-end bidders, are often much smaller in scale.

A recent dinner and auction at St. Joseph High School in Lakewood raised about $50,000 and featured Dodger tickets, passes for miniature-golf games and gift baskets. The big-ticket items included a weekend in Palm Springs and a beach cruiser bicycle, said Assistant Principal Debi Connell. Also popular each year are personal student parking spots, which can fetch from $200 to $1,000.

At St. John Bosco, a boys school in Bellflower, a raffle and golf tournament were expected to raise about $60,000 to support financial aid and teacher salaries. Raffle items included a Hawaii trip and two cars, said Paul Kaminski, the director of advancement.

Meanwhile, the more well-heeled schools are employing ever more ambitious methods to coax open the checkbooks of wealthy parents.

Santa Ana's Mater Dei High School is offering the chance for a $1-million, three-bedroom, 3 1/2 -bath home in Costa Mesa for the price of a $200 raffle ticket as part of an assertive fundraising appeal for the school's financial aid programs. In the same raffle, parents could win a $10,000 shopping spree at South Coast Plaza. The drawing closes June 15.

"We thought it was a very creative and new idea to raise money," said Mater Dei President Patrick Murphy. "Our goal is to sell 20,000 tickets If we reach 10,000 we'll be very happy, and if we reach 20,000 it will be phenomenal."

The school has so far sold about 6,000.

If the Mater Die initiative is bold, it is by no means unique.

Harvard-Westlake School, with more than 1,500 students on campuses in North Hollywood and West Los Angeles, has an overall fundraising goal of $5.5 million this year, said Headmaster Thomas Hudnut. He expects that 85% to 95% of parents will make a contribution.

The theme at its recent dinner was a Venetian masquerade, and nearly 700 people attended the event at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Actor and singer Peter Gallagher, a new Harvard-Westlake parent, volunteered to perform songs from his new CD.

In addition to a romantic Italian getaway and a U.S. Open tennis tournament package, the live auction featured a jersey signed by Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and a meal prepared in the top bidder's home by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. There was also an at-home poetry reading for up to 50 people performed by Harvard-Westlake mom Alfre Woodard with fellow "Desperate Housewives" Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross and Eva Longoria.

The final auction tally is still being calculated, but an estimated $200,000 was raised.

"I have always contended that annual giving is a referendum on how a school is doing: If you like what you see, you're going to support it," said Hudnut, who served as auctioneer and who was also featured in several prizes, including a literary evening with school parent and author Frank McCourt. "People in general are becoming more generous than they were 10 or 15 years ago, and the average gift is trending up."

The items on display at many Southern California events frequently display Hollywood flash -- often enhanced by the celebrity cachet of parents. The Harvard-Westlake auction included a basketball clinic with Clipper coach and school dad Mike Dunleavy and two tickets to the New York world premiere of the movie "Inside Man" starring fellow school dad Denzel Washington, courtesy of co-star Jodie Foster.

NBA stars Jason and Jarron Collins, 1997 Harvard-Westlake alums, offered one-hour basketball clinics.

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