Apodaca: District needs to discuss pooled funding

A column I wrote earlier this month regarding the disparity in fundraising among Newport-Mesa public schools touched a nerve with many readers, so I thought it worth revisiting the topic ("How can public schools compete for donations?" March 4).

I previously pointed out that public schools in wealthier neighborhoods in Newport Beach benefit from foundations and PTA activities that raise hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, whereas some of the schools in lower socio-economic zones in Costa Mesa have very little access to outside fundraising.

My intent was not to criticize or cast blame, but to shed light on the donation gap, which has become a more sensitive and pertinent issue during these desperate times for California public schools. In many cases, private donations are used to pay for goods, services, and programs that have been decimated by budget cuts.

I also noted that some other districts throughout the state have turned to a system of pooling privately raised funds, which are then redistributed based on perceived need.

The response to my column was mixed, but strongly felt. Some observers were critical of my focus on private donations in light of the fact that public funds aren't dispersed equally among schools. Also, it was pointed out that schools in more meager areas have access to certain grants and other means of extra support.

On the other hand, a good friend who is active in fundraising winced at my cavalier description of schools like Corona del Mar High School and their ability to "rake in" hefty donations.

Indeed, money doesn't just roll in on trucks and get dumped in the quad, even at the most successful fundraising schools. Dedicated teams of hardworking parents dig deep to mine every nugget possible, no easy task in these lean economic times. Mea culpa for my callous choice of words.

Mostly though, I heard from readers who expressed gratitude for bringing attention to the issue.

Some interesting feedback came from Rochelle Fanali, a California State PTA official and a parent in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.

That district is similar to Newport-Mesa in that its schools are situated at different ends of the socio-economic spectrum. In a controversial move, it recently changed to a shared system, in which donations generated at all the schools are pooled. Some parents vehemently objected to the new fundraising mechanism.

"Everyone who writes about this issue always includes the fears that parents have about the idea of transitioning from site-based to district-wide fundraising — fears that parents won't give as much 'if they aren't giving to their own schools,'" Fanali wrote in an e-mail.

"However, what these articles almost always fail to mention is that there is no evidence of those fears becoming reality."

According to Fanali, districts that have adopted a unified fundraising approach, which also include those in Palo Alto, Manhattan Beach, Irvine and Palos Verdes, all faced pushback from some parents who threatened to withdraw their students or withhold donations.

Neither reaction came to pass, she maintained, and the pooled systems are now running smoothly and successfully.

"Parents don't care who they write a check to — they care about what that money pays for," she wrote. "And if a district policy is to pay for staff [programs] through centralized fundraising, then that's how parents contribute."

Would a pooled fundraising system be a workable approach for Newport-Mesa?

Maybe, maybe not. But the question is worth asking, and the issue deserves examination. At the very least, the dire economic straits of our schools require we keep open minds, and employ abundant resourcefulness and creativity.

For the woeful reality of public education today is that we are on the brink of epic failure. Throughout the state, school districts are teetering toward ruin, and a system-wide collapse isn't unthinkable.

At the risk of devolving into broken-recordness, the crux of the problem can't be repeated too often or loudly: California schools are a mess, thanks to decades of mind-bogglingly bad policy decisions by politicians and voters.

Even the districts that remain afloat, like Newport-Mesa, have been forced to throw off considerable weight to keep from sinking. Items once considered basic attributes of public education — art, after-school programs, gifted-student education, library services, the list goes on — are now often considered unaffordable luxuries.

Three competing tax measures to restore some school funding, one by Gov. Jerry Brown, are headed for the November ballot. But even if they don't cancel each other out, these proposals offer limited, temporary fixes only. A long-term solution is nowhere in sight.

So what's certain is that private fundraising will continue to be a relied-upon method of backdoor financing for schools, not just for extras, but also for essentials. And as long as that's the case, the glaring discrepancies in donations from school to school will hold even greater significance.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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