When Jackie Morgan MacDougall and other parents learned that their Saugus Union School District received the least state aid of any district in the county, she said they had to act.
With the state contemplating deeper aid cuts, MacDougall and others began circulating petitions to create an education foundation — a nonprofit organization in which community members raise funds for teacher grants, instructional equipment, extracurricular activities and other programs.
"We were tired of being told your hands are tied," said MacDougall, the mother of children ages 5, 6 and 7. "We wanted to know what could we do as a community to help instead of just complaining about Sacramento."
Increasingly, parents, educators and concerned citizens throughout the state are turning to education foundations in hopes of bolstering shrinking school budgets.
"We're being contacted by more and more districts now," said Susan Sweeney, executive director of the California Consortium of Education Foundations, noting that there are 650 education foundations throughout the state. "It's indicative of the times. We're seeing a real urgency right now."
Saugus, which serves about 10,500 students from kindergarten through sixth grade, receives an estimated $4,931 per student from the state, according to statistics from California's Department of Education. Peter Foggiato , the agency's fiscal director, confirmed that Saugus receives the least state funding of all Los Angeles County school districts. Elementary school districts statewide now receive an average of $4,959 per student.
If voters reject Gov. Jerry Brown's plans to raise taxes in November, schools and colleges would lose more than $5 billion, state officials have said. And that would slash Saugus' allotment by another $378 per child, according to district Supt. Joan Lucid.
Proponents of a Saugus education foundation said they hoped to raise funds to save jobs, pay for supplies and keep class sizes manageable, among other goals.
However, it is unlikely that an education foundation would be able to raise the money needed to keep teachers employed or class sizes small. Foundations are good for initiating programs and identifying other needs, but not for day-to-day "operational costs" that annually run into the millions, Lucid said. "We need some state assistance."
In neighboring Castaic Union School District, parents and officials created a similar education foundation that awarded roughly $14,800 in grants in 2011, according to its website.
Saugus faces a budget shortfall of almost $7 million, and more than 80 educators have been given preliminary layoff notices for the coming school year. The student-to-teacher ratio in kindergarten through third grade classrooms is expected to jump from about 20 to 1 to 30 to 1.
Overcrowded classrooms and a potential negative effect on test scores in the high-performing school district top the concerns of Tracy Bagatelle-Black, mother of Molly, a fifth-grader at Highlands Elementary, and 5-year-old Alexander, who is set to start kindergarten next year.
Bridgeport Elementary School teacher Cheryl Cameron, who for a fourth year has received a pink slip notifying her that she may be laid off, said children with learning disabilities or autism, as well as those who are learning English as a second language, are now mainstreamed into classrooms, a situation that isn't conducive to large class sizes.
"When you start putting 10 more children into a classroom …. you cannot give them the individual attention they need," Cameron said.
Still, some question the fairness of asking community members to pay for a foundation when many parents already contribute to the district's parent-teacher associations.
"It sounds like a good idea," Bagatelle-Black said. "But we pay taxes and taxes in California aren't cheap."
"We shouldn't have to be taxing ourselves because we're getting less money than everyone else," Cameron said.
Lucid said the school board was also exploring local tax options, such as a parcel tax or a general obligation bond, to help address the district's financial deficiency. But, she said, a critical factor is "we need some state assistance."