PTAs may contribute to school disparities; Affluent areas raise more money, widen gap between old, new

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Although his new Lime Kiln Middle School in Fulton is equipped with such high-tech amenities as computers and high-speed Internet connections in every classroom, Principal Stephen Gibson expects to spend even more -- from PTA fund raising some hope will top $100,000.

At Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, Principal Brenda Thomas has bought note pads for her teachers -- out of her own pocket.

"But I kept the receipts, hoping that someday this year I can reimburse myself," said Thomas, whose PTA will be able to come up with a fraction of what Lime Kiln's raises.

The fund-raising differences at the two schools can add to the perceived disparity between older schools in poorer neighborhoods and newer schools in wealthier areas. Dozens of parents in one neighborhood in Wilde Lake's district, Clemens Crossing, saw academic failings in Wilde Lake last year, and they fought to send their children to Lime Kiln.

Across affluent Howard County, schools in more upscale areas routinely raise tens of thousands of dollars a year through gift-wrapping drives, silent auctions, school festivals and other promotions, helping pay for anything from guest speakers to playground equipment to new computers. To help Lime Kiln's PTA achieve its fund-raising goals this year, a local car dealer is offering the chance to win a $27,000 Dodge Caravan.

But where pockets of poverty exist, schools can't depend on so much help. A few schools with poorer populations raise substantial sums, but most come up with less than $10,000 each, according to interviews and school system records.

"It does tend to exacerbate inequity," Thomas said. "It's a very difficult issue. It's hard for me to tell you what the answer is."

Gibson doesn't agree that fund raising is an issue, saying it's wrong to label one school "affluent" and another "poor" and suggest that one will have an advantage over the other.

The two principals' different outlooks reflect schools that are in different worlds, even though they're in the same county. Lime Kiln, in rural Fulton, is made up largely of middle-class and more affluent families, many of whom are excited that their children are attending a state-of-the-art school.

PTA President Debbie Blomme says she wouldn't be surprised if this year's magazine-subscription drive takes in more than $100,000 for Lime Kiln. While some in the PTA don't share Blomme's fund-raising optimism, they believe the magazine sales may reach $50,000, though as much as half that could go to fund-raising expenses. Gibson said profits could pay for "bells and whistles. Enhanced software digital cameras. Things that you just normally wouldn't have as part of your program."

At Wilde Lake, Columbia's oldest middle school, the PTA has set its sights far lower, hoping to put a little more than $10,000 into school activities and needs this year.

More than a quarter of the children at the school were on free and reduced lunch programs last year, the highest percentage of any middle school in the county.

The parents who found Wilde Lake wanting are paying $37,800 this year for buses to take 63 children to the new school -- money Wilde Lake could have used, say some parents from both schools.

"We could pay the honorarias to have Nobel laureates come down to talk to the kids and teachers if we had $40,000, but that type of thing will never happen," said Rick Wilson, PTA president at Wilde Lake. "We don't have as large of an affluent community of parents to draw from. Planning for a budget of 10 or 12 thousand is working hard for us."

Creative ideas

The PTAs with less resources note that they try to be creative about improving their children's education without fund raising. They apply for grants, encourage parent involvement in activities and seek local business help in school projects.

Wilde Lake, for example, is hoping to win a $60,000 grant, to pay for computers and classroom Internet connections -- standard fare at new schools like Lime Kiln. At Bryant Woods Elementary School, where just less than a third of the pupils are on free and reduced lunches, Columbia Bank is offering to contribute to Thanksgiving baskets for children and supported a class project to raise money for breast cancer awareness.

But Bryant Woods also raised less than $8,000 last year, while a new elementary school in western Howard, Triadelphia Ridge, raised about $95,000 before expenses.

"Sometimes it makes me feel very discouraged, when I see that we have needs that I would like to meet," said Mary Ellen Creasy, who raises money for the Bryant Woods PTA. "You can network and look for grants, but sometimes there's no substitute for money."

Creasy says it would be "wonderful" to bring in more speakers, offer more after-school programs and help more children afford field trips. At Triadelphia Ridge, the PTA did all that last year, and had $20,000 left.

"We ended up designating $15,000 to carry over this year to start a playground fund," said Kathy Rogers, Triadelphia Ridge's PTA president. "Many parents felt like there wasn't enough playground equipment."

That kind of substantial fund raising has been on the rise at PTAs nationally for years.

"Fund raising for public schools has gone way beyond the bake sale," said Howie Schaffer, a consultant for the nonprofit Public Education Network in Washington. "There's a danger there that these groups will get into the situation of paying for capital development, paying for professional development, paying for things that are the public's responsibility."

Top PTA officials say they discourage such fund raising but are aware it's widespread.

"It's not the PTA's mission or goal to supply all the extra things that a school needs," said Maryland PTA President Debbie Bostian, who lives in Frederick. "Our position is to advocate through the school system to get the things the school needs, rather than raise funds for them."

Limiting PTA role

Some local PTA officials say they realize their fund-raising role should be limited.

"If we do [raise $100,000], I expect the county somehow to do something, a policy change with the fund raising," Lime Kiln's Blomme said.

Howard County Schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey says not to expect changes in policy to address fund-raising inequities. He said the school system works hard to help older schools, spending millions of dollars to upgrade equipment. Years ago, he and others considered and rejected the idea of a countywide foundation, noting that the school system receives donations and secondhand equipment and tends to deliver those to the neediest schools.

"It's a difficult thing to tell a group that really is autonomous from the school system that you can't raise as much money as you want to, and if they choose to give it to the school, that's up to them," Hickey said.

At Lime Kiln, PTA officials say they don't want fund raising to be their focus. They point out the magazine drive is the only major fund-raiser for the school this year.

"We are not going to do a series of mega-fund-raisers," said David Vidmar, who seeks business sponsorships and donations as chairman of the Lime Kiln PTA's school partnerships committee. "The concern that comes up is, should PTAs be raising this much money for a school, and then does it become a lopsided situation?"

Gibson, the Lime Kiln principal, says he has emphasized that he doesn't want too much fund raising.

"I believe that you do fund raising just to help enhance the school," Gibson said. "But you don't turn the school into a fund-raising machine."

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