Though she hasn't taken an official count, Susan Sweeney director of the California Consortium of Education Foundations, estimates that more schools in San Diego have set up their own nonprofit foundations than anywhere else in the state. Based on records filed with the Internal Revenue Service, 29 schools in the San Diego Unified School District have formed independent fundraising organizations that generate anywhere from $18,000 to more than $500,000 annually for a single school. These foundations provide students with the kinds of things budget cuts have rendered luxuries.
IRS records show that foundations here doled out money for trips to Sacramento, foreign language classes, a school garden, entire computer labs, yearbooks, library books, a radio transmitter for a science program, assemblies, theater workshops and playground fix-ups. Some foundations were able to fund staff positions such as library assistants and health aides-a practice that might become more common given that on March 2, the school district's budget deficit forced the district's 187 schools to cut the full-time equivalent of 28 counselors, 11 librarians, eight nurses and 43 campus administrators.
School foundations tend to be reluctant to take on the responsibility of paying someone's salary and benefits, said Scott Patterson, the district's finance director, but some schools "are talking about the possibility" of buying back positions cut from their budgets.
Cheryl Creagh, who heads EdUCate!, a nonprofit foundation that provides financial support for five University City schools, said her organization asks teachers to apply for grants each year. For an upcoming fundraiser, the foundation is asking teachers to come up with wish lists of classroom needs that will then be "adopted" by community members.
"[Teachers] are asking for more basic items, such as computer paper and tissue," she said.
Sweeney, of the California Consortium of Education Foundations, said that while most of these school-based nonprofits raise a small amount of money compared to a school's overall budget, "it allows local control. It allows a community to say, "This is important.'"
Local control is something schools haven't had since Prop. 13 essentially gave the state authority over education funding. Prop. 13 put a cap on property taxes-the chief funding source for public education-and sent per-pupil spending here plummeting as low as $1,200 below the national average in the early '90s. Things have leveled out since then, and right now California is roughly $800 short of what the rest of the U.S. spends, on average, to educate each child.
A 2001 report by the Rand Corporation found that during the past decade, public schools have become increasingly smart and aggressive when it comes to fundraising and seeking support from private donors. La Jolla Elementary School, for example, generated more than $80,000 in 2002 from its weekly farmer's market, proceeds of which go to sprucing up the school's three playgrounds. In all, recent tax filings show that the 29 schools with active foundations were able to pull in close to $29 million.
David Else, director of the National Center for Public and Private School Foundations, said that in the past, schools and school districts set up foundations in order to accept money from a donor or beneficiary. "The motivation for starting them was not so much out of a need to replace lost funding," said Else, "[though] that seems to be the motivation now."
Here in San Diego, schools that have foundations are located largely in middle-class or upper-middle-class communities: La Jolla has several foundations, as does Point Loma, Scripps Ranch and the University City area. Only three school foundations are located in areas where, according to census data, the median family income is less than the city average of $53,060. Serra High School in Serra Mesa, where the median family income is $51,093, brought in $65,720 in revenue last year. Holmes Elementary in Clairemont, where the median income is $47,281, brought in $35,837.
Only one active foundation serves a school with a student population considered socioeconomically disadvantaged-San Diego High School, where 67 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-priced lunch. The San Diego High School Foundation has an endowment of close to $350,000-second only to the La Jolla High School foundation's revenue of more than $500,000.
Daryl Ferguson, a 1949 grad of San Diego High and one of the foundation's founders, said the school's large alumni organization's dedication to supporting the current student body is what keeps the foundation going. "We don't do balls or parties or banquets," she said. "There's no parent involvement-most parents aren't able to provide very much in the way of support." Compared to other school foundations in San Diego that are largely parent-driven, "we could not be more different," said Ferguson.
The Rand study showed that school fundraising tends to be directly proportionate to household income. Only one-third of parents in households living below the poverty line are able to donate time to their child's school, the study found. On the other hand, nearly 60 percent of parents with incomes higher than $75,000 volunteer at their children's school. In school fundraising there's also what's called the "principal of proximity"-the closer an individual is to the school-geographically or, as in the case of San Diego High School, emotionally-the more likely he or she will donate time or money.
Else hopes the trend can be remedied by a shift in perception. People need to see their donation as an investment, he said. "Education is so vitally important to the fabric of our country and we want to offer you the opportunity to invest and be a part of something that's bigger than any of us can do individually," said Else.
Better-educated students get better paying jobs, he noted. "They pay more taxes that go back in-it's that cycle. I think that's what we're really looking at."
Else warned, though, that if schools rely too much on foundations to cover costs, "state legislatures might say, "Well, that's good you can raise that much money on your own; we don't have to provide state support.' That's a very dangerous kind of situation to get into. You always want to make sure that dollars that come in through the foundation are supplemental dollars; they're not dollars supplanting state support."
Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, a candidate for the school board seat representing southeast San Diego, said that because of so-called "compensatory" education programs that gave federal money to schools in low-income areas, "I don't think [fundraising] has been a big focus until now. Schools [in southeast San Diego] have not realized the value of a foundation."
Compensatory-education money is usually restricted to certain uses. Because money raised by foundations is unrestricted, "it's liberating in that sense," Whitehurst-Payne said. "A part of my overall belief is that this community needs to move in that direction-doing things themselves to raise money... to empower the community."