Christmas came early for Bromwell Elementary in Denver’s chic Cherry Creek neighborhood, the good tidings wrapped in an e-mail sent to the school community a few weeks before the holiday break.
Bromwell’s 2011-12 annual PTA fund drive set “all kinds of records,” according to the e-mail, including most dollars ever raised, at $97,000, and the greatest participation ever by parents, at 89 percent.
Those big bucks rolling in, even in trying financial times, was pretty much business as usual for Bromwell.
Last school year, Bromwell reported $229,871 in PTA donations alone, topping all other DPS schools reporting gifts to the board of education, most of them by a factor of 10 or more. Spread across a student body of 317, that shakes out to about $725 extra per pupil.
“It’s tremendous, and it’s actually vital,” said Bromwell Principal Jody Cohn. “If I didn’t have the PTA support, I’d have to make reductions in staff.”
That boost from the PTA funded two full-time teachers and five classroom aides working four hours per day.
DPS officials say they don’t have complete tallies of private donations to schools because financial gifts can be made, and reported to the district, in a variety of ways.
But an Education News Colorado review of monthly gift reports to the DPS board, contributions funneled to schools through the DPS Foundation and a spreadsheet of private donations to schools compiled by the DPS budget office shows some schools clearly benefiting more than others.
Perhaps not surprisingly, those schools reporting higher gift amounts tended to have lower poverty rates while many high-poverty schools reported little in contributions.
“It’s not something we should be ashamed of or conceal or downplay, but we don’t trumpet it either,” Bromwell PTA President Gregg Rippey said of the affluent school’s fundraising prowess. “People realize how lucky we are to be in the situation that we are.”
Bromwell, one of just 15 schools to carry DPS’ top ranking of “distinguished,” has the district’s second-lowest population of students eligible for federal meal assistance, an indicator of poverty.
While 72.5 percent of all DPS students qualified for that aid, the figure at Bromwell was just 7.9 percent. Only Slavens K-8 School, at 7.7 percent, has a lower poverty rate.
Slavens also did extremely well in private giving last year, reporting $144,785 to the school board in gifts. For the 543 students enrolled last year, that averages out to almost $267 in extra per-pupil funding. For a classroom of 25, that’s an extra $6,675.
At the other end of the poverty – and fund-raising – spectrum is Johnson Elementary in southwest Denver, which reported fewer than $3,000 in private gifts in 2010-11.
If a donation of five or six figures came through the door of the school, where 96 percent of students are low-income, said Principal Robert Beam, “You’d be writing a story about a principal who is dancing in the streets all day long.”
Do private dollars and Title 1 funding equal a level playing field?
Disparity in private donations to Denver’s 170 schools is not new and district leaders have, in years past, talked about possible ways to even out the giving.
No such rules exist, however, and DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg does not favor attempting to regulate private contributions through caps or deducting district money from those schools receiving more via donations.
“I would never be in favor of a deduct mechanism, that if parents are generous enough to give to a school, that the school should somehow lose public funding” in an effort to more equitably distribute dollars, he said.
Principals themselves expressed little desire for such a balancing act, with several saying the federal Title 1 funding received by high-poverty schools provides counterweight.
Beam describes his school’s donation record as “pretty typical” of many neighborhood schools in the city’s southwest.
“The Southwest Denver Kiwanis support is great,” he said. “On that level of funding, when we have a need, Kiwanis is always there for us, at the $200 to $1,000 level.”
Johnson also is paired with the property management company Granite Properties through a DPS Foundation program that matches businesses wanting to help with schools that need it. That resulted in a donation of folding poster boards for the school science fair and a $500 gift card to buy Christmas gifts for Beam’s staff.
– Principal Robert Beam
It sounds modest, but Beam said, “Districtwide, it looks to me that Title 1 funding levels the playing field to a certain degree. I don’t get Bromwell’s $100,000 PTA donations, but they’re not getting my $160,000 in Title 1.”
Title 1 is the federal government’s nearly 50-year-old program aimed at providing extra help for kids in poverty. In DPS, schools with poverty rates between 66 to 89 percent receive an extra $433 per pupil. For schools at 90 percent poverty or more, the figure is $525 per student.
Beam’s school is using its Title 1 money this year to pay part of the salaries of five teachers – three are intervention specialists for struggling students – as well as hosting evening enrichment activities with parents.
In addition, Boasberg said the district’s student-based budgeting formula provides “weighted” supplemental funding for high-poverty students. At the elementary level, it means an extra $461 per high-poverty student, and at the secondary level, it’s $496.
“Our schools with high numbers of students in poverty have greater needs, and we need to meet those needs,” he said. “Many of those students don’t have the same supports at home as some of our more affluent students do, and so those greater resources go to support those schools with greater needs.
“We think that’s a very important issue of equity.”
At Slavens, raising money for librarian, music teacher – and other DPS schools
Slavens Principal Kurt Siebold used the southeast Denver school’s PTA money to hire classroom assistants who provided up to six hours of reading help daily in the first, second and third grades.
PTA money also offset about half of the full-time librarian’s salary. And a second fund-raising group, Friends of Slavens, covered well more than half the salary of a full-time music teacher.
- Bromwell Elementary – Total raised: $280,356, How spent: Salaries for two teachers, five classroom assistants at four hours per day, renovation of student bathrooms including hands-free flush toilets, laptop cart including 30 laptop computers
- Slavens K-8 – Total raised: $169,240, How spent: Classroom assistants, partial coverage of full-time librarian’s salary and more than half the salary of a full-time music teacher.
- Westerly Creek Elementary – Total raised: $157,000, How spent: Classroom assistants, library technician, part-time intervention teacher, partial cost of new gym floor.
Siebold said private giving is a “touchy subject, in terms of other schools who say, ‘Well, we don’t get anything.’ ”
But he said it’s important to schools such as his – which, due to the relative affluence of the families that enroll their students there, do not get Title 1 dollars.
“There are extra resources they get that support the needs of kids,” he said. “Not being Title 1, we miss out on some of those things.”
School board member Anne Rowe, a longtime Slavens supporter, said the Slavens PTA created a program through which half of all corporate donations to the school are in turn donated to the DPS Foundation, an effort to both stimulate giving to Slavens and to help other schools.
And Annie Humphrey, Slavens PTA co-president, said the school’s fundraising has been so successful over the years that its PTA has donated $42,967 to the DPS Foundation for other schools since 2004.
“The community was so involved in the creation of Slavens, it (private financial support) became part of the culture of the school,” Rowe said.
The principal at one more affluent DPS school, Westerly Creek Elementary in Stapleton, said she didn’t initially understand the need to privately raise dollars.
“Five years ago … I didn’t understand why non Title-1 schools needed to raise money. I had no idea,” said Principal Jill Corcoran. “A principal I knew at another school pulled up my numbers, and he pulled up his. We had almost exactly the same number of students, but he had about $240,000 more in federal dollars – Title I money.
“I was like, ‘Okay, now I understand how a lot of schools get a lot more money than others, and yet we all want the same thing.’ It was a big eye-opener for me.”
Westerly Creek received $157,000 from its PTA last year. That paid for classroom assistants at every grade level, a library technician and a part-time intervention teacher, plus items such as more classroom supplies and covering a third of the cost of a new gym floor.
Principal: Bigger issue isn’t private giving, it’s lack of state funding for schools
For schools that have difficulty raising private money, the DPS Foundation tries to help.
Last year, it took in $9.9 million, most of it coming from corporations and foundations. Of that nearly $10 million raised in 2010-11, more than $8.8 million went back out into the community.
“We’re that convener of needs, that community liaison, that allows folks to figure out how best to invest in DPS,” said executive director Kristin Colon, “without having to figure out how to work the whole system themselves.”
Many people prefer to write checks to the DPS Foundation, rather than to a specific school, she said, counting on the foundation to spend it where it will do the most good. The foundation’s annual report shows individuals contributed 4 percent of its revenue last year.
Private gifts to the DPS Foundation make possible its A to Z Fund, which pays for grants ranging from $250 to $2,000. The fund has recently helped provide items ranging from sending Steele Elementary youngsters to the King Tut exhibit at the Denver Art Museum to travel for East High School cheerleaders to a football bowl game in Hawaii – with a financial assist from United Airlines.
The foundation funded 111 A to Z grants for 78 DPS schools totaling $133,981 in 2010-11, according to spokeswoman Sarah Dixon. Schools must apply if they hope to secure one – but not all do so.
“We definitely recognize that not all schools and neighborhoods have the same level of support,” said Colon. “That’s why we exist – to support the needs of the district systemically, and support all 81,000 students to the best of our ability.”
Last year, the only contributions noted for Johnson Elementary in the records examined by EdNews were two grants totaling $2,657 to help fund student literacy and history plays.
Beam isn’t whining about his school’s private giving being measured in such relatively small amounts.
“It would be easy for me to do so,” he admitted. “But … it’s not how much families donate. It’s about the fact that we as a state simply don’t fund appropriately.
“I don’t think it’s compelling for me to go to board meetings and say Bromwell should be sending me 10 percent of its PTA money.”
The DPS community, Beam said, needs to be asking, why do parents and PTAs – those who can afford it – feel it’s necessary to donate so much cash so that a school can deliver something beyond the absolute basics?
“I don’t feel that DPS is holding back cash from me. They’re not making their lives any easier for themselves, or mine any harder, than they have to,” he added. “They’re giving me as much as they can. The problem is what they’re given is not enough.”
Charter schools do not report their private gifts to the DPS board. The state’s 2010 Financial Transparency Act require local education providers to post their financial information online but numerous charter directors told EdNews their records, as posted, did not always provide a clear picture of the annual giving.
“If you’re looking for private funding or gift contribution reports, however you title it, you should be able to pull out those pieces – but that depends on how their auditor handled it when they prepared their reports,” said Lori Deacon, a charter school financial consultant with seven clients in the DPS system.
“It’s never simple and clean, out on the table, that this is what is required, this is the format, so that we’re comparing apples to apples.”
But charter schools and management organizations contacted directly by EdNews provided reports on their 2010-11 private funding. As is the case for the district’s traditional schools, the charter schools’ private money ranges widely from hefty contributions to none at all.
West Denver Prep, which was operating four schools in the district in the last fiscal year, registered $1,057,000 in private gifts, with $1,009,000 of that coming from foundations, and just $13,000 from parents. Another $35,000 was contributed from individuals other than parents.
“We do very little solicitation of parents,” Chris Gibbons, the CEO of West Denver Prep, said in an email. “Basically, the parent reps on the board are asked to give since they are board members, and then the Parent Council at each school can fund raise on its own for special projects if they choose to.”
The KIPP charter network ran two schools in the DPS system for 2010-11, and took in $960,000 in private funding for the year, according to executive director Rebecca Holmes.
Of that money, $614,000, or $1,033 per pupil, was used to provide programming and services to 594 KIPP students at the two schools that were operating last year. KIPP, like West Denver Prep, serves high concentrations of low-income students.
Denver Schools of Science and Technology, operating three schools last year for 1,015 students, raised $7,150,917, according to CEO Bill Kurtz. That equates to $7,045.24 per pupil.
Highlighting the DSST donations portfolio was an announcement in August that Liberty Media chairman John Malone planned to give $7 million through 2013 to assist the charter management organization in opening five additional schools approved by DPS.
“A vast majority of our fundraising is currently focused on supporting our growth and building out our schools that we have commitments with the district to start,” said Kurtz.
But beyond soliciting the resources needed to fulfill DSST’s ambitious build-out plans, Kurtz said, “We’re fully committing to doing our best to get to a place of running on public dollars.”
The subject of private funding to public schools has been examined to a degree by Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at CU-Denver.
“One of the things that struck me is that it’s not trivial money, but it’s also not enormous,” he said.
“On some of the charters, some of the favored ones, clearly they have gotten some huge grants. Some people say that, ‘Well of course they are doing well, they get all this money.’ My sense is they have gotten the money after they have shown success. My sense is that they succeeded first, and the money followed, which allows them to do more, which is great.”
Not all charters are aggressive in seeking private funds from parents, foundations, or elsewhere. Richard Barrett, school director for the Pioneer Charter School, said the goal is not to raise private dollars.
“That’s living off something that’s not real. You want to budget to survive on state dollars, as low as they are,” said Barrett, whose school currently has 395 students, 4-year-olds through seventh-graders.
Gibbons, at West Denver Prep, agreed.
“I would say the importance of private money to a charter network is in funding growth,” he said. “It is always our goal to run our core practices, in a fully built-out school, on just public dollars.”
Barrett said Pioneer, started in 1997, does not have to pay for the considerable program growth required of a new charter school, and that the early years are always a charter’s most costly.
But as a rule, he said, charters should emulate his school’s lack of reliance on private funding: “If they are depending on fundraising, that’s the end, right there.”