The $110,000 video scoreboard at Damascus High School, the $80,000 electronic scoreboard at Winston Churchill High and the million-dollar turf field at Thomas S. Wootton High all have something in common.
They’re expensive and extravagant, yes. But perhaps more important, the upgrades at the Montgomery County public schools weren’t funded with taxpayer dollars, instead arriving via private donations and parent fundraising.
Booster clubs and parent-teacher associations have long been important sources of funding for schools, paying for items such as playground equipment, field lighting and other amenities that public money might not otherwise buy. But in Montgomery, one of the most affluent counties in the United States, officials are concerned that private fundraising for such public improvements is widening economic disparities in the community.
They are reviewing donation policies in the hopes of leveling the playing field. Other jurisdictions are wrestling with the same issue. In Fairfax County, for example, officials are using taxpayer money to even out some extracurricular activities.
The Montgomery County Council and Board of Education have seen an increasing number of expensive projects emerging from the county’s affluent communities and think it could contribute to the achievement gap and deepen the divide between economic classes.
Of the 126 privately funded school improvement projects in the county in the past three years, 22 have cost between $10,000 and $1.3 million, almost all of them in wealthier communities with fewer minority students. Of those 22 projects, 17 were at schools with lower rates of students receiving free and reduced-price meals, a measure of poverty, and a majority of the projects were at schools where whites and Asians made up more than half of the student body.
“You don’t want a system where you drive on one side of [Interstate] 270 and see incredible things happening and drive on the other side and wonder why these things aren’t happening,” said Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Eastern County), head of the council’s education committee and a former member of the Board of Education.
Board and council members are considering policy reforms that could more tightly regulate private donations for public schools. Both entities met in July to discuss how to handle private donations after four projects required board and council approval in fiscal 2013, double the number of similar high-dollar projects from fiscal 2011 and 2012 combined. A $247,000 request for an outdoor classroom, expanded stage and other improvements at Westbrook Elementary School also set off alarms for the Board of Education in December.
Montgomery policy says school improvement projects funded with private money should not “foster or exacerbate inequity.” Board of Education and County Council approval is required for projects that cost more than $50,000, and private money isn’t allowed to pay for teachers and other staff members.
Some council members have suggested having booster clubs or foundations pool their money and share it with schools that have fewer resources.
But some parents might find that suggestion “a bit crazy,” said Winn Gaynor, former president of the Watkins Mill High School Booster Club.
Gaynor said it is important to make things “fair across the board,” and he suggested that in the absence of fundraising, schools in lower-income areas could try to find grants to pay for improvements.
School districts across the region and country have struggled for years to find equity when it comes to private donations, in some cases regulating how such money can be used.
In the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in California, school officials voted in 2011 to block PTAs from independently raising funds to pay for school personnel, a proposal some irate parents dubbed the “Robin Hood” plan. The move led other California districts to consider similar measures.
In Fairfax, the school board and county supervisors have approved initial plans to spend $3 million in county money on 15 new synthetic turf fields in areas where the rate of free and reduced-price meals is highest. Fairfax boasts 67 synthetic turf fields, largely funded by private donors and athletics boosters from the county’s tony neighborhoods.
The Howard County Board of Education created a nonprofit foundation to leverage private donations and ensure equity of resources across the district. The foundation donates laptops to needy students and pays for innovative classroom projects that the system would not typically fund.
The Bright Minds Foundation came to life after officials rejected attempts among certain Howard high schools to install privately funded stadium lights. Board of Education members and the superintendent at the time said lights had to be installed at all high schools or at none. The community banded together and raised more than $1 million to light stadiums at all 12 of the county’s high schools in 2004.
Equity is important, said Bill Hoffman, interim executive director of the National School Foundation Association. But he said school boards must be careful not to stifle parent fundraising efforts.
“PTAs and booster clubs are typically passionate about whatever they’re raising money for,” Hoffman said. “I don’t know if that passion would remain if the money wouldn’t be used for what they were originally raising the money to get.”
Hoffman said nonprofit education foundations, like the one created in Howard, are popular ways for school systems to centralize fundraising or support students from communities with fewer resources. Montgomery has a nonprofit education foundation, and officials have recently discussed expanding the organization’s responsibilities to divvy up private donations as a possible reform.
In Montgomery, the most expensive privately funded improvement during the past three years has been a $1.3 million artificial turf field, under construction at Wootton High. The Bethesda Soccer Club paid for $900,000 of the project, with parents raising an additional $200,000. The school system funded the remainder when the project came in $200,000 overbudget.
Allison Wise, president of the Wootton High School Booster Club, said parents in the community knocked on doors, held several fundraisers and campaigned for eight months to find the money.
“We were pretty persistent in raising it,” Wise said. “Parent involvement is one of the big issues.”
Wise said that if the County Council and Board of Education want to tackle disparities in private fundraising, they will have to figure out how to increase community engagement among parents, which she says ultimately fuels fundraising efforts.
Wise said one possibility would be to have schools from more active and wealthy neighborhoods adopt “sister schools.” But the partnership would have to be about more than sharing money, she said. Schools with active parent groups and experience raising funds could teach parents from other schools how to do it.
Montgomery Board of Education member Pat O’Neill said the school system will look for community input and suggestions in the fall as the district reviews its policies.
“How do we make sure everyone receives equitable educational opportunities?” O’Neill said. “We are having that conversation.”
Privately funded school improvements aren’t limited to aesthetic features and athletic equipment. They include technology that could give some students academic advantages over others.
The sharpening divide between haves and have-nots in Montgomery came through when interactive whiteboards appeared in county schools. Not all classrooms had the technology, and parents from communities such as Wheaton, Poolesville and Silver Spring worried that teachers and students in schools that did not receive enough private donations would have to do without. But parents from schools such as Great Seneca Creek Elementary School in Germantown or schools in Potomac were able to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the whiteboards.
The concerns were part of the reason the district spent millions of dollars in federal grant money and county funds for 2,000 smartboards in elementary classrooms across the county, boards that are scheduled to be installed before the coming school year.
Montgomery parent Allison Soussi-Tanani signed a petition last year asking the school board to fund the smartboards in all classrooms. A few years ago, her son’s class was unable to raise enough money for the boards, so it wound up buying different, cheaper technology instead.
“It was helpful, but it didn’t take [the teachers] where they wanted,” said Soussi-Tanani, who sends her rising seventh- and third-graders to schools in middle-class neighborhoods. “There’s an ebb and a flow to equity in the Montgomery County system. We live in north Silver Spring, and even there we see disparities, not just with technology but with everything.”
Wheaton High parent Kathy Cherrie said she thinks it is unfair that public schools in more affluent communities have better amenities and additional resources, largely because it can give those students an advantage. But Cherrie, president of the PTSA at Wheaton, said she’s not sure how to address the inequity. Cherrie remembers when Wheaton received a donation from one of the more affluent schools in the county a few years ago to fund a post-prom event.
“It would be nice to have more, but knowing who we are dealing with and the financial resources of our community, we work with what we have,” Cherrie said. “But we would do a lot better if we got more.”
T. Rees Shapiro contributed to this report.