Private donors crucial to fill funding gaps


POSTED: Monday, February 23, 2009

Universities have long relied on private support as part of their funding. Now more public school districts, traditionally funded by taxes, are finding they must reach in the same direction.

“;We know there's a cap on government funding, but there is no cap on private funding,”; said Jim Collogan, director of the National School Foundation Association, based in Des Moines, Iowa. “;In other words, there's a huge marketplace out there to go shopping in.”;

Roughly 45 percent of the country's 14,500 public school districts have private foundations that help fill gaps in public funding, he said, a trend that began after states like California began capping property taxes. Since the School Foundation Association was organized in 2005, it has quickly grown to nearly 2,000 members.

Education ranks second only to religion as a recipient of Americans' charitable dollars, Collogan noted. But most of those donations go to higher education, as college development offices mine their alumni, sports fans and community for financial support. Private foundations can take a page from that playbook to support elementary and secondary schools, he said.

“;Foundations offer the community an opportunity to support a great resource: the children of that community,”; he said.

But many school foundations rely on volunteers and have trouble competing for philanthropic dollars with professionals or creating and maintaining a database of alumni. The Public Schools Foundation of Hawaii is run by a volunteer board, with no paid staff, trying to help 257 public schools statewide. It raised nearly $300,000 last year at its annual fundraiser, money that goes largely toward “;Good Idea”; grants for schoolteachers, President Michael Cusato said.

Contrast that with the Highland Park Education Foundation, which has five paid staff members and raised $3.5 million last year for the seven schools in its district, an affluent section of Dallas. Highland Park was motivated by a dramatic drop in funding because of Texas' “;Robin Hood”; approach, which siphons property taxes from rich school districts to poorer ones.

“;The state takes 72 percent of our property tax base and leaves us a very, very small sum to work with,”; said Beverly Vaughan, development coordinator for the foundation. “;In order to keep the schools up to the excellence they've always had, we've had to do the annual campaign.”;

The foundation used to pay for school enhancements, but now a large portion goes to teacher salaries, she said. It has had great success approaching grandparents as donors, listing their gifts and grandchildren's names in the local newspaper. “;Everyone wants to see their grandkid's name in the paper,”; Vaughan said.

Part of Highland Park's success stems from the strong ties residents feel to their neighborhood schools. Because Hawaii is a single school district, the Public Schools of Hawaii Foundation lacks that personal connection with would-be donors.

A few public high schools in Hawaii have their own foundations, but they are rare. The Roosevelt Alumni Foundation helped raise money for its new stadium, which serves as home field for Roosevelt, Farrington and McKinley. The McKinley High School Foundation focuses on helping its graduates go to college, awarding scholarships to 55 graduates last year, about one-seventh of the class.

“;To me, public education is essential to our country, not only in the economy, but in maintaining our democratic traditions,”; said Carl Takamura, president of the McKinley Foundation. “;I think everybody needs to look at it and figure out what they can do to help.”;