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Many Schools Now Count on Private Donors for Extra Funds : Education: The contributions from foundations supplement budgets in a time of declining state appropriations. But critics say the efforts also widen the gap between rich and poor districts.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last month, 800 Palos Verdes residents in tuxedos and elegant evening gowns danced to a live orchestra and dined at a lavish buffet under three tents pitched on an oceanside bluff.

The gala affair, for which the residents paid up to $170 each, has been put on every May for the past 10 years by the Palos Verdes Education Foundation. Called “The Main Event,” it is where residents of the well-heeled seaside community dig into their wallets and evening bags to support their local schools.

And are those wallets and bags ever deep.

Between the evening’s various raffles and auctions--which featured more than 500 items for bid, including a cellular phone, a Utah ski trip and an autographed Los Angeles Raiders football--the foundation garnered about $200,000 for the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District.

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“We’re concerned people,” said former foundation President Ann Pappas. “If you have strong, healthy schools, you’re going to have people who want to stay here and live here, and it’s going to keep your property values up.”

Few community school groups can aspire to match the fund-raising capabilities of the affluent Palos Verdes Peninsula, which has one of the most successful foundations in the state. But all the groups nevertheless share the same goal: to raise as much money as possible for local public schools through private education foundations.

Although students in some districts are occasionally asked to bring appeals for funds home to their parents, most foundations collect large chunks of money through one-time events such as golf tournaments or dinner-dances.

In the three South Bay school districts supported by education foundations--Palos Verdes Unified, El Segundo Unified and Manhattan Beach City elementary--private funds are being used to finance everything from computers and books to library aides and math tutors.

But tony school districts aren’t the only ones turning to education foundations to help schools cope with often-devastating cutbacks in state and federal funding.

School districts in Inglewood, Torrance, Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach are all working with community leaders to help launch their own community fund-raising groups.

“We’ve been in a mode of cutting programs for three years,” said Bill Franchini, a member of the board of directors of the newly formed Torrance Education Foundation. “We think in Torrance, a city this size with the community base and the excellent reputation that the schools have, that the situation is ripe for (the creation) of a successful foundation here.”

Some critics, however, point out that the schools most in need of help are not the ones benefiting from private fund raising.

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They say the channeling of private money into local school districts tends to help schools in wealthy areas. They also say it further widens the gap between schools in rich and poor neighborhoods in violation of the spirit of a 1978 state Supreme Court decision--Serrano vs. Priest--that held that inequitable funding of school districts is unconstitutional.

And though some foundation advocates argue that their efforts raise awareness about the plight of education in general, some critics say private fund raising takes the pressure off state politicians to see that public education is adequately funded.

Still, those in the South Bay’s neediest school districts are wary of begrudging their more affluent neighbors whatever money they can raise to improve education.

“I think Palos Verdes and others are feeling their problems too,” said Kenneth L. Moffett, superintendent of the Lennox School District, which encompasses a part of Los Angeles County south of Los Angeles International Airport. “I know parents in all communities that love kids. They will take care of their own, and I’ll do everything I can to take care of Lennox.”

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On the Palos Verdes Peninsula, taking care of their own has translated into $3 million in donations over the past several years. In the county, only San Marino and Beverly Hills surpass the Palos Verdes foundation in annual contributions to local schools.

Last year, the Palos Verdes Education Foundation funneled about $450,000 in private donations toward ongoing programs in the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, which serves about 8,700 students on a $31-million annual budget.

The money paid for computer-education specialists and library aides at all of the district’s 11 elementary and intermediate schools, as well as for math tutors and writing specialists at its consolidated high school.

Some funds were directed to a discretionary fund for principals, who then decided how to spend it at their schools. For example, at Palos Verdes Intermediate School, foundation funds provided supplies for the school’s science lab.

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The foundation also contributes to the district’s substance-abuse prevention program, which addresses every student at every grade level in the district.

“Almost all the money they give to the district goes directly into the classroom,” said Palos Verdes Supt. Michael Caston. “Our education foundation is a really successful aspect of the district. It’s all volunteerism . . . and it’s a significant amount.”

Students in the Manhattan Beach City School District, which has an $11-million budget, also have benefited significantly from private fund raising.

Last year, the 2,500-student district received $77,000 from the Manhattan Beach Education Foundation. Although some of the money paid for part-time instructional assistants in the district’s preschool programs, most of it was used to fund small teacher grants to improve the quality of classroom instruction.

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Among last year’s recipients was Barbara Graham, a sixth-grade teacher at Aurelia Pennekamp School. She received $1,000 to buy, feed and care for a collection of small animals that she keeps in the classroom. Graham uses the animals--which include fish, mice, guinea pigs, turtles, lizards and even tarantulas--as teaching aides across a variety of subjects.

The grants program “encourages teachers to experiment,” said Manhattan Beach Assistant Supt. Sara Content.

The foundation “is not only an important source of financial support, but it also supplies support in spirit, energy and enthusiasm,” she said. “When you see things are possible because you have the resources, you can try more and do more.”

The education foundations of Palos Verdes and Manhattan Beach raise most of their money from parents, but the pockets of parents with children in the El Segundo Unified School District aren’t as deep.

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Nevertheless, the El Segundo Educational Foundation is still able to raise about $60,000 a year for the 2,200-student school district, mostly by reaching out to corporations in the community.

The foundation’s board of directors divvies up the money every year after reviewing a wish list of items provided by the superintendent. Through the years, the foundation has purchased computers, microscopes and textbooks for the district, said Supt. William Manahan.

Although the money makes up only a small percentage of the district’s $9-million budget, it is enough to allow schools to acquire instructional materials they otherwise would not be able to afford, Manahan said.

“It’s important to us because you can count on it every year,” he said. “One of the ways you balance your budget is you don’t make any capital purchases. It’s just impossible for us to keep pace unless we have contributions from the foundation.”

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The responsibility of dividing the pot of available funds is not taken lightly by those who sit on the school foundation boards.

The newly formed Torrance Education Foundation, which is still seeking nonprofit status from the state, plans to send a survey to parents in the Torrance Unified School District next week to try to find out how they would like to see the money spent.

The survey will ask parents to rank in order of importance those programs they would most like restored by private funds. Vocal music, field trips and kindergarten-through-fifth grade physical education are among the $6 million in programs that have been slashed from the district’s $80-million budget in the past three years.

And though the recently launched Hermosa Beach Education Foundation has not yet raised a single penny, administrators in the Hermosa Beach City School District have already begun to discuss how they would like to use private donations.

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“One area they would like to support is technology,” said Supt. Elaine Gourley. “Buying new software is something we could use help with. And we want to add a new state-of-the-art laser disk.”

Many school administrators have begun to realize that education foundations can also enhance a school district’s ability to earn grants or to gain more control over how money is distributed through its schools.

The Inglewood Unified School District, for instance, receives thousands of dollars in donations from area corporations every year, but most of it is earmarked for particular schools. As a result, some schools are benefiting from private funds while others are not.

“Many people want to donate to the schools they know, while another school may have no outside support at all,” said Maurice Wiley, administrative assistant to the superintendent. “A foundation would give you more control over what you can do with the dollars.”

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The Redondo Beach City School District already has a development department through which corporate donations are sought, but the district is also helping form an independent foundation in an attempt to make a wider array of grants available to the district.

“It (the foundation) will allow us a great deal of flexibility,” said Redondo Beach City School District Supt. Beverly Rohrer. “There oftentimes are grants that you cannot apply for through the district, or grants that are only available to foundations. . . . (The foundation) will allow us to qualify for a lot of funding we may not be eligible for otherwise.”

But for each school district in the area that has been able to use private donations to save music or art from the budget ax, there is another that has never had enough money to provide such enrichment programs in the first place.

With about 92% of its largely minority student population qualifying for free or reduced lunches, the Lennox School District has little hope of raising money from parents. In fact, Supt. Moffett said it would be “an absolute impossibility” to collect even $5,000 in private donations for his schools.

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Although the district receives about $20 million a year from the state and federal government, most of the money must go toward English-proficiency programs, leaving little for such “extras” as music, art or even physical education.

“There’s some big gaps,” Moffett said. “When people say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to have these things,’ well, I agree, but we would like that too. There’s a lot of things (wealthier districts) take for granted that we never had.”

“If (a wealthy district) wants to raise money to put a new floor in the gymnasium--we would just like to have a gymnasium--or their fine-arts department wants to put in a new stage, I’m all for it,” he continued. “But the thing that has to be done on a long-term basis is that every school district in the state of California has to be adequately funded.”

Even when needy communities find a way to form foundations to help local schools, they are often too fragile to remain effective in the long run.

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The Education Foundation of Centinela Valley is one such case. For years, the foundation funneled private donations to the Centinela Valley Union High School District and the four elementary school districts that feed students into it.

But the foundation fell apart two years ago after former President Cora Travers resigned from the post.

“They didn’t have anyone to take over,” Travers said. “It breaks my heart, because I’m well aware of the needs.”

The inability of needy communities to sustain interest in education foundations is one of the reasons some education experts are wary of the use of private funds in public schools.

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Peggy Funkhouser, president of the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, which funneled $2.2 million into the Los Angeles Unified School District last year, is among them.

Unlike many other education foundations, the partnership she heads does not raise money to supplement district programs. Instead, foundation funds are earmarked to train teachers in innovative ways of instructing students.

“It’s a shortsighted view,” Funkhouser said of private fund-raising efforts. “I don’t quarrel with it, but I don’t think it is in society’s interest if we don’t keep the focus on adequate funding in public schools.”

Parents alarmed by the declining state of education in public schools, however, are not likely to be swayed by such arguments. In fact, membership in the California Consortium of Education Foundations is growing yearly, said President Caroline Boitano.

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“Foundations cannot necessarily fill the gap, but they can continue to bring programs to public school districts and (bring their funding problems) to the attention of the public at large,” Boitano said. “My experience with people is that the more and longer they have been involved in foundations, the more politicized they become to the plight of the educational system in California.”


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