A new fundraising craze is pumping money into some North Side Schools: Theme parties at parents’ homes. Think of a party focused on the ‘70s or wine-and-dessert, sold to the highest bidder.
Parties like these are not just fun, but also lucrative, says Tracy Portnoy, president of Friends of Coonley, a fundraising group for Coonley Elementary. The parties are offered on an auction table at a recent gala, with other items such as a stay at a vacation home and airline tickets to get there, gift baskets and jewelry. At the end of the night, the auction raised a whopping $205,000 for Coonley, in North Center. In 2014, their total was more than $400,000.
“I care about making sure that the school is effective through the highs and lows of the budget,” Portnoy says. “It truly takes a village.”
For a select but growing group of schools in Chicago’s wealthier communities, parent fundraising has risen to new heights. Most parent groups can only dream of bringing in significant money. And most schools don’t have “Friends of” groups, for which the main focus is fundraising, though PTAs and similar groups sometimes raise small pots of money.
Altogether, these 41 schools raised roughly $7.6 million in one year, or an average of about $300 extra per student. By far, the biggest fundraiser was Alcott, which took in $600,000, according to its tax information. This money is on top of the $4,390 per student that the district provides all schools, plus extra for specialty programs and students who are in special education, low-income or English learners.
All of these schools are in upper-middle class communities, with an average of 41 percent white enrollment, compared with 9 percent district-wide.
Only five high schools, all of them selective — Whitney Young, Lane Tech, Jones, Payton and Northside Prep — fundraise to a significant extent. A few high schools, such as Amundsen and Senn, have newly launched Friends of groups.
Most people don’t begrudge parents the chance to make their child’s school better with more money. But the fact that some schools are able to raise so much contributes to the already-glaring disparities among schools, and at least partly explains why two schools in the same district can look so different.
Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University, says that if Illinois schools were funded adequately to cover the basics, the extra cash wouldn’t be problematic. But as it is, Chicago schools are “dramatically underfunded,” he notes. “Everybody is getting too little, so it heightens the inequities.”
Rebell’s organization uses constitutional law as it attempts to convince the courts to force states to provide equitable funding. Yet Rebell points out that, while Illinois’ state constitution has strong language around parity, the courts don’t seem inclined to enforce it. Illinois ranks dead last among the 50 states in funding equity between low income and wealthier school districts, according to a recent Education Trust report.
When issues around school fundraising and equity emerged in New York 15 or 20 years ago, the state banned outside groups from paying for core teachers — such as regular classroom teachers or those for basic subjects — but allowed them to chip in for supplemental teachers, Rebell says.
Neither Illinois law nor CPS policy prevents schools from using fundraised money for teachers or other staff. According to a district manual on the subject, schools must not use fundraised money to buy things that only benefit individual employees, should be able to document purchases and must make sure the expenditures benefit students.
CPS could not provide Catalyst a full accounting of how the money is spent, but officials said that in this school year, 18 full-time and five part-time teachers were hired in schools using money from private fundraising. In addition, 15 teachers’ salaries were partly paid with private fundraising money.
As schools have experienced deep budget cuts, parents say they are increasingly called upon to pay for basics. Some parents say their main purpose is helping their schools survive cuts.
But schools also fundraise for expensive extras such as computers, sound systems and impressive playgrounds.
Take Edgebrook Elementary. This year, the PTA and the school’s foundation paid to renovate a room into The Commons, outfitted with new computers and projectors so students would have a place to work on projects.
Edgebrook Principal Chad Weiden says he is grateful for the parents’ effort, but emphasizes that the school would still be good without the extras. “Good teaching is good teaching,” says Weiden, who spent five years as principal at Social Justice High School in North Lawndale.
To some degree, Nellie Cotton agrees with Weiden. She is a local school council member at Grimes/Fleming Elementary, a highly rated school in the Southwest Side neighborhood of Clearing. Parents at the school have book fairs and bake sales, but only manage to raise about $8,000 a year.
Nearly 90 percent of students at Grimes/Fleming are low-income and most of the fundraised money is used to help students who can’t pay for their own transportation or for student fees.
“It is stretched thinly to where it needs to go,” says Cotton.
Two years ago, after big budget cuts, Cotton says the school replaced two retiring teachers with less experienced ones. This year, Cotton says she is hearing that the budget will shrink again, and her school is out of options.
“We are really scrambling,” she says. “We don’t know what will happen.”
When Weiden was principal at Social Justice High School, the school received a significant amount of poverty grant funds — extra state and federal money given to schools based on the number of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. “Here we get almost nothing,” he says of Edgebrook. It’s a point echoed repeatedly by others who defend private fundraising.
At Edgebrook, only about 15 percent of the 512 students are considered low-income, so the school receives just $46,000 in poverty grants. By comparison, similarly sized schools with all low- income students got an average of $370,000 in poverty funds.
“The way they do things is an imbalance,” says Debbie Kobak-Nielson, president of the Edgebrook School Foundation. “The foundation helps us to stay on top of things.” The foundation raised about $50,000 last year. In addition, the Edgebrook Parent Teacher Organization raised about $160,000.
But the argument that parent fundraising replaces poverty grants isn’t necessarily valid. For one, some schools don’t get a lot of poverty money, nor are they able to raise a lot of money. Fourteen of the 45 elementary schools in the district that have fewer than than 50 percent low-income students fit this category. Many of these schools are on the Southwest Side or Northwest Side in solid middle- to working-class neighborhoods, like Mt. Greenwood, where families are making ends meet but don’t have a lot of extra cash.
Third, as Bobby Otter from the Center for Tax and Budget Policy points out, schools in wealthy areas often have specialties, such as magnet programs, for which the district provides extra money.
Lolita Sereleas, president of Friends of Audubon for two years, has serious reservations about the heavy reliance on fundraising at schools like Audubon.
“CPS and the administration seem like they cut the budget and leave it to parents to figure it out,” she says. “But for those schools that can’t fundraise as much, it creates a lot of disparity.”
Sereleas helped Audubon raise $312,000 last year. “The amount we are expected to raise keeps getting higher,” she says. “How much can you do, and how much can you be expected to raise? I think there is a fair amount of fundraising fatigue.”
Friends of Audubon keeps a small amount in reserve and hands over the bulk of the money to the local school council. The money is mostly used to help pay for teaching positions or supplemental staff, such as reading specialists.
Sereleas thinks it’s unrealistic to expect Friends of Audubon to continue to raise a quarter of a million a year. The group is bracing for the coming year, when deep cuts could materialize.
“We have heard a lot of doom and gloom,” says Sereleas. “The climate is not positive.”
Despite the reservations, Friends Of groups are beginning to be seen as essential tools to improve schools.
Paul Schearf revived the Friends of Agassiz group eight years ago, when his son was only 2 years old and hadn’t even started preschool.
Agassiz is in the gentrified Lake View area, but many families did not send their children there at the time. Instead, the children attended private schools or magnet schools, like nearby Hawthorne.
While Schearf says they did not want to completely change the school, he jokingly says they kind of wanted to “gentrify” it. “We were aspiring to be like the schools that did mega-fundraising like Blaine, Alcott and Nettelhorst. They raise more than $100,000 a year. We wanted to have that support,” he says.
The first year he ran the group, it raised $25,000; the second year, $50,000. Schearf wanted to keep doubling it, but fundraising held steady after it reached about $80,000.
Schearf believes that to really be successful, Friends Of groups need to have a parent who can work on fundraising virtually as a part-time job.
Chris Hewitt is part of a group of families in Logan Square who want to turn Brentano into a viable neighborhood school. About two years ago, they started Friends of Brentano and just filled out the paperwork in February to become an official non-profit. He says the first thing the group wanted to do was to let parents know about the school and get them enthusiastic about it. For example, one member runs a weekly playgroup at the school.
“Fundraising, while important, wasn’t our first goal. However, once we realized that most of the schools that offer extra programs in CPS have to do so with community and parent fundraising, it became more important to us,” Hewitt says.
Yet it has been a difficult road. Though the neighborhood is changing and wealthier residents are moving in, about 86 percent of Brentano’s students are low-income. So far, the organization has brought in less than $10,000 in two years.
Hewitt says CPS could help schools with the daunting process of registering as a non-profit to help them get organized.
The question, however, is whether these groups can really be successful in keeping parents in the city, especially the groups that don’t raise as much money.
After running Friends Of Agassiz for three years and then serving on the local school council, Schearf and his wife moved the family to Naperville.
“The story of the middle class in Chicago,” he says. Still, the desire for a good school was only one reason they moved. In Chicago, they lived in a small condo, and they wanted a house with a backyard and a community that was “kid-centric.”