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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Local Public School Alumni Associations Step Up

From the Folio and

by Julie Delagal

Getting parents involved in their kids’ education is an idea with national resonance -- President Obama even mentioned it in his State of The Union address last month. But in Jacksonville, parents go beyond helping with homework and volunteering. At several local schools, they’ve established a new kind of funding mechanism to help keep schools in business: private foundations. Unlike PTA fundraisers and booster clubs, nonprofit corporate foundations are raising money not for extracurricular “perks,” but for core educational functions, like teacher pay.

One such foundation got its start last fall at Pine Forest Elementary School at of the Arts, a arts magnet school on Jacksonville’s Southside. The idea emerged when budget cuts threatened to knock three Pine Forest performing arts teachers from full-time status down to part-time status. After talking options with Principal Denise Ahearn, Pine Forest parent Jonathan Cantor, an architect at RS&H, teamed up with other parents to lay the groundwork for “Friends of Pine Forest.” Within two weeks of announcing their plans, $14,000 rolled in; more than half that amount from a single donor. That shot in the arm was enough to restore the visual arts teacher and the music teacher to full-time status -- the string orchestra teacher has been restored to four-fifths time – and has allowed programs like advanced strings, advanced art, and the spring play to continue uninterrupted.

“The vision of the foundation is not to just keep teachers’ salaries, but to enhance the quality of the programs,” says Cantor, who eventually hopes to feel the “same kind of energy” at Pine Forest that he felt touring the city’s performing arts high school, Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. As it happens, Douglas Anderson also benefits from community support through a charity, which is administered by the Jacksonville Community Foundation.

High school alumni are also stepping in to pick up the budgetary slack left by anemic state funding. The Terry Parker Alumni Association, a nonprofit foundation, was born three years ago in response to lean budget times, says one of its founding directors, Lindsey Brock.

Three years ago, Brock’s fellow alumnus Ricky Allen got a call about football players at Parker having to share helmets, because the school didn’t have enough money to purchase one for each player. That shocked alumni like Brock, an attorney and civic activist who is now running for City Council in Arlington’s District 1.

“When we were there, it was a model school. All of [former Congressman] Charlie Bennett’s military academy appointments came from Parker,” Brock says. He notes that along with financial woes, Parker was also experiencing a crisis in discipline — a crisis he says Principal Addison Davis has worked to turn around. The alumni group, now headed by Ricky Allen, held a fish fry and a charity golf tournament and raised $30,000 for the school in 2008. Although the desire to help began with the athletic program, the need goes well beyond the playing field. Says Brock, “our goal is to expand it to the arts and academics.” The association since decided to form a nonprofit 501(c)3 corporation. Over the past three years, it has raised more than $130,000.

Its success hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Terry Parker Alumni Association has become the go-to resource for other high schools in the county seeking to create nonprofit foundations, including several local high schools looking to emulate their program. Among them are Lee, Sandalwood, Raines, Wolfson, Mandarin, Forrest and Ed White, Brock says.

Duval County Schools spokeswoman Jill Johnson says the district isn’t tracking informal groups seeking to form nonprofit corporations, but notes that Terry Parker, Lee High School and Eugene Butler Middle School have all had success in raising funds and recruiting volunteers. “It’s certainly something we’re looking to cultivate in the district,” Johnson says.

Cantor and Brock are mindful of the “Florida Lottery risk” – the concern that outside financing will give the state or district room to decrease existing funding even more. “We, number one, did not want to be viewed as a replacement for funding from the district and state levels,” says Brock. “We wanted to << augment >>.” Brock says the group uses its fundraising efforts to spur involvement from Parker students. “We do a lot of matching,” he says. “We want the students to have some skin in the game.”

Cantor says that filling critical gaps with private money doesn’t let the legislature off the hook and School Board Member Betty Burney agrees. She says she will work to make sure Pine Forest, which is in her district, isn’t punished for parent’s fundraising initiative.

That’s important, says Brock, who notes that using foundation money only to fill in budget gaps would be a disincentive for action. “That kills morale,” he says. “That kills initiative."

1 comment:

  1. Although some districts who don’t have the means to do this may not like it, this is about groups stepping up in a crisis. These groups are finding a way, themselves, to fix a problem that they are concerned about. Is it fair? Probably not, but life isn’t always fair. It would be unfair to redistribute their money to the schools that don’t have the means and would thus be receiving free money. It would be great if everyone had enough money to fund some of these programs, but unfortunately that's not the case.