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From the Editor

Encouraging, And Controlling, Fundraising

Times have changed; so should your district's rules about what private money can buy.

Have you ever heard of an idea that sounded crazy at first, but within 10 minutes you're convinced it's the best new thought you've come across in years? That's what our fundraising article this month feels like to me ("Fundraising Grows Up").

Sure, fundraising has been a part of education for decades. Band trips and playground equipment largely exist because of car washes and bake sales, it seems. Odds are some soft drink company bought your football scoreboard for the right to have its logo prominently displayed.

Your district has probably already moved past these models, but once you read our cover story, you'll start to realize how much the world of private fundraising for public schools has changed.

The trend of private groups forming to raise money is certainly growing. And the money these groups are gathering is probably more than ever before. The Foundation for Lincoln (Neb.) Public Schools not only has a Web site that can match donors with specific projects, but it also encourages people to leave the foundation money in their wills or to transfer long-term stock holdings to the group.

Times have changed;so should your district's rules about what private money can buy.

But one more dynamic in this field has changed, too. Many of these groups are raising this money to pay for items usually covered in school budgets. Teacher's aides, teachers themselves, school additions, even supplies are just some of the items now regularly funded by private money.

This brings up two age-old dilemmas and one brand-new one. First, it's great for districts to get extra help, but what if it hires teachers or aides with this money and the fundraising dries up the next year? Layoffs or other cutbacks to keep the staff would put the district right back where it was before it received the windfall. And with people's careers at stake, not to mention parents used to certain class sizes, it can be hard to wipe out the gains of a year ago.

The second dilemma is that if the money can be guaranteed each year, a municipality can start treating this money like part of the regular school budget. That means instead of the private money being in addition to the budget, it makes it easier for towns and cities to reduce school funding.

The new problem that has occurred as fundraising grows is the question of equity. Schools within districts can serve poor families and rich families. Obviously, it's not fair if the wealthier parents band together and raise enough money to put class sizes at 15 in kindergarten if other schools in the same district have 27 children per kindergarten class.

So what's a superintendent to do? Trying to limit fundraising really isn't an answer. Even though most of the groups under discussion are separately formed non-profits, the superintendent and the school board have to set up rules governing giving. Some districts force non-profits to give a portion of what they raise to the district overall, while other districts limit the items that can be paid for with private money.

In order to avoid the roller-coaster effect of fundraising from year to year, superintendents can again turn to a practice common at private schools, colleges and universities. Having your local non-profit set up an endowment for the school system can guarantee a steady flow of funds across the years.

The solution for trying to keep this extra money from disappearing from your regular budget is a little trickier. But if your district or foundation has really energized residents to support public education privately, it should be easy to energize this same base to support a bigger tax increase as well.