Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Schools policy divides haves, have-nots

Campuses in wealthy neighborhoods have easier time funding improvements; others struggle for money

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The request seemed harmless enough: A nonprofit group wanted to spend $30,000 for Terrazzo tile at the main entrance lobby of Carderock Springs Elementary School in Bethesda.

The proposal has spurred debate about the intention of a 5-year-old policy that allows parent groups, private organizations and businesses to raise money for school improvements not funded by the county.

The policy was supposed to allow public schools to upgrade buildings with non-county funding sources ‘‘without creating inequities among school communities” and ‘‘strengthen the relationships between the school system and various groups within the community,” according to public school documents.

But the policy has backfired, especially for schools in Silver Spring, Wheaton and Takoma Park, which largely do not have nonprofit groups to raise money for them. But for schools in more affluent areas — in places like Bethesda, Clarksburg and Potomac, for example — the situation is different.

‘‘In those communities, you just have a lot more money,” said Ricky Ford of Silver Spring, coordinator of the John F. Kennedy Cluster for the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. ‘‘In some of the other areas, you’ll have an issue. You’ll have disparities based on neighborhood income. You’ll tend to have a lot more resources available for schools in some areas versus other areas.”

The private Carderock Springs Elementary School Educational Foundation Inc. raised $181,000 for school upgrades, which included a habitat garden, amphitheater and an exterior sign with a message board. The problem, some school board members say, is that only the more affluent schools can afford those kinds of upgrades.

The school board ultimately voted 6-2 to approve the foundation’s request. Board members Sharon W. Cox (At-large) of Germantown and Judith R. Docca (Dist. 1) of Montgomery Village opposed the plan.

‘‘Not every school in Montgomery can raise this kind of money,” said Cox, chairwoman of the board’s Policy Committee during the school board’s June 23 meeting. The request, she said, ‘‘is a bit out of sync [with] what the intent of the policy was.” And the Terrazzo tile, Cox added, is ‘‘making a public school look like a private school.”

But the policy should be thrown out because it goes too far in limiting private contributions, said school board member Stephen N. Abrams (Dist. 2) of Rockville.

‘‘I opposed the policy when it was enacted,” he said. ‘‘When we have opportunities to have private funds in the schools, it essentially expands the pie.”

He disagrees with the equity argument because the school system already puts more money and resources in the county’s neediest schools. ‘‘We don’t allocate funds equally to every school anyway,” Abrams said.

When Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School was renovated, the county spent millions when a historical group asked for adjustments to keep with the building’s original form, Abrams recalled.

‘‘The added cost on that thing was astounding,” he said. ‘‘In the current climate, we can’t afford to waste money like that.”

Some PTAs can afford to pay steeper reimbursements to school staff members for their out-of-pocket expenses. ‘‘It’s probably a little more difficult to do it here than at a Walter Johnson [high school],” Ford said.

In wealthier communities, parents could pay back as much as $300 while another school could only afford $50, he said.

In the Kennedy cluster, only John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring has an educational foundation to raise money, Ford said. The foundation, which was formed in August 2006, has raised at least $40,000 for improvements at the high school, he said.

‘Icing on the cake’

The policy prohibits any money to be used for capital projects normally funded by the school system, county or state, such as construction to add capacity, for example.

The funding request must also be reviewed by Joseph J. Lavorgna, the school system’s acting director of facilities management, and the school’s principal or site administrator to ensure the request complies with the policy.

Lavorgna can approve any spending request under $50,000. He also updates the school board and Superintendent Jerry D. Weast on funding requests under the policy. The most recent update was April 21; the last update was Dec. 5, 2005. That year, the school board approved $46,675 for upgrades to sound system equipment in the multipurpose room and the addition of a double sink in a classroom at Kensington Parkwood Elementary School.

Funding requests under the policy don’t come that often, Lavorgna said.

‘‘It can vary,” he said. ‘‘It just depends on what the needs are, and what foundations are willing to do.”

In November, the PTA at Ashburton Elementary School in Bethesda requested permission to raise funds for a courtyard project. The facilities management department approved the project because it was under $5,000.

A month earlier, parents at Woodfield Elementary School in Gaithersburg got approval to spend $34,460 to widen and repave the track around its athletic field. And last summer, Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda got a $30,000 donation from the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers to replace its scoreboard and install new visitor bleachers.

‘‘On its face, it’s a laudable goal to say, ‘We want to perk up our elementary school,’” Janis Sartucci said of the Carderock plan, coordinator of the Winston Churchill cluster from 2002 to 2006. ‘‘But down the line, we’re going to create elementary schools that look very different from one another.”

Under the policy, parents and groups are supposed to first ask the school board’s permission before they raise funds for projects. That doesn’t always happen, said Sartucci, who sent a letter to the County Council in June about the policy.

‘‘There’s a lot that goes on that never makes it to the board,” she said. ‘‘A lot goes on without board approval. By the time they come to the board, it’s just icing on the cake.”