June 9th, 2008

Beyond The Bake Sale: School Fundraisers Raising Their Sights

By Daniela Altimari
Hartford Courant

SIMSBURY — - Kris Barnett and Sheila Gschwind are foot soldiers in the endless struggle to raise money for the public schools. They’ve whipped up cookies for the PTO bake sale, chased down donors for the silent auction, peddled pricey wrapping paper and directed students to collect thousands of pennies to help pay for a new playground.

Now these two mothers, along with other education boosters in Simsbury, are setting their sights significantly higher: They have launched a campaign, complete with a professionally produced marketing video and what amounts to a schoolhouse version of naming rights, to raise $1.5 million.

That’s a lot of cookies — and it may explain why Barnett and Gschwind, like supporters of cash-strapped public school districts around the nation, are looking beyond the bake sale.

“We’ve scaled up,” said Kevin Welner, director of the Education in the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “Even schools in well-off areas are holding major fundraisers. I doubt the endowments are going to rival Yale’s, but they are using a lot of the same tactics.”

About half of all school districts nationally now have independent foundations to solicit donors, organize fundraisers and dole out grants, according to the National School Foundation Association.

Even so, Simsbury’s lofty goal stands out. “I haven’t heard a figure of a million-plus before,” said Liz Stokes, president of the Connecticut Consortium of Education Foundations.

A number that high is perhaps only attainable in a well-heeled bedroom community where many denizens have ties to the region’s major corporations.

For schools, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Instead of paying for the little extras, such as new band uniforms or a class trip, private donors increasingly are picking up at least a portion of the tab for educational essentials. Simsbury’s fund drive will help underwrite the purchase of pricey new classroom technology, equipment that educators say is crucial to learning in the 21st century.

The board of education is committed to spending about $600,000 a year during the next five years on laptops, interactive white boards and document cameras, with additional money to be allocated later for maintenance and replacement. But the annual cost of purchasing the equipment is about $900,000, leaving a shortfall of $300,000, or $1.5 million over the five-year span.

That’s where volunteers such as Gschwind, a former information technology professional who left the corporate world after giving birth to twins, and Barnett, a real estate agent and mother of two, come in. They hope to tap grants, reach out to alumni and secure contributions from the business community in their quest to fill the gap in government spending.

A decade ago, the board of education would have purchased classroom technology. But in an era of spiraling costs and surging taxpayer frustration, parents and school officials have had to come up with new revenue streams to supplement public money.

Simsbury school board Chairman Jack Sennott said he would love to be able to fully fund the district’s technology program. “I’d also love to have no user fees for athletics and three language choices in fourth grade and expand the strings program,” he said. “These are all choices you make from an economic perspective.”

The business community is more than willing to help out. However, many corporations focus their philanthropy on urban schools, whose needs dwarf those in the suburbs. The Hartford Financial Services Group, for instance, supports education in many of the places that it has an office, including Simsbury, where the insurer’s contributions have helped pay for a children’s media hub at the town library, among other programs. But spokeswoman Shannon Lapierre explained in an e-mail that the company places a special emphasis on Hartford, “which has been our home for nearly 200 years and is where we see a critical need.”

For all of its affluence, Simsbury, a pastoral suburb of sprawling homes and superior test scores, faces many of the pressures that less-wealthy communities encounter. Education costs are taking a larger bite out of municipal budgets. With salaries and benefits making up more than 80 percent of school spending in most towns, and fixed costs, such as utilities and fuel, on the rise, there is not a lot of money left for laptops and other pricey new necessities.

“A generation ago, it was pencils, paper, books, chalk — pretty cheap,” said Jim Collogan, executive director of the National School Foundation Association.

There are more teaching tools than ever, but “taxpayer support of public schools has not kept pace with the technological needs,” he added.

To Superintendent Diane Ullman, that means one thing: “We’re going to have to look beyond the property tax base.”

The campaign will be run much like a university fundraising drive, targeting big corporations and local businesses as well as alumni and individuals.

There will be enticements, such as the chance for donors who give $10,000 or more to get their name — but not their company’s logo — on a plaque outside a classroom, or even lend their name to an entire grade level — within limits, of course.

“We’re not going to let Marlboro cigarettes or Smirnoff vodka put their name on a classroom,” Barnett said.

Such companies sell products that don’t mesh with the school district’s mission, she explained.

All large gifts would need approval from the school board, Barnett said.

“This whole naming rights thing is so new to us. We have to be selective because we’re dealing with a public school system,” she said. “We’ll look at everything on a case-by-case basis. ... If it’s a conflict of interest in any way with the town and the school, certainly we couldn’t name a classroom or grade level after them.”

The group’s first task will be to sell the community on the importance of classroom technology. Wireless laptop carts and white boards, interactive boards that are connected to computers, should no longer be seen as frills, Gschwind said. They are tools that promote collaboration, enhance teaching and allow children to learn in different ways, she added.

Such equipment “can really help bring what teachers are talking about to life,” Gschwind said.

Moreover, the lives of today’s students are steeped in technology.

“These children are putting webcams on their ski helmets and posting videos. They are used to using all these different technologies,” she said.

“This is the world they live in.”

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