The $110,000 video scoreboard at Damascus High School, the $80,000 electronic scoreboard at Winston Churchill High and the million-dollar turf field at Thomas S. Wootton High all have something in common.
They’re expensive and extravagant, yes. But perhaps more important, the upgrades at the Montgomery County public schools weren’t funded with taxpayer dollars, instead arriving via private donations and parent fundraising.
Booster clubs and parent-teacher associations have long been important sources of funding for schools, paying for items such as playground equipment, field lighting and other amenities that public money might not otherwise buy. But in Montgomery, one of the most affluent counties in the United States, officials are concerned that private fundraising for such public improvements is widening economic disparities in the community.
They are reviewing donation policies in the hopes of leveling the playing field. Other jurisdictions are wrestling with the same issue. In Fairfax County, for example, officials are using taxpayer money to even out some extracurricular activities.
The Montgomery County Council and Board of Education have seen an increasing number of expensive projects emerging from the county’s affluent communities and think it could contribute to the achievement gap and deepen the divide between economic classes.
Of the 126 privately funded school improvement projects in the county in the past three years, 22 have cost between $10,000 and $1.3 million, almost all of them in wealthier communities with fewer minority students. Of those 22 projects, 17 were at schools with lower rates of students receiving free and reduced-price meals, a measure of poverty, and a majority of the projects were at schools where whites and Asians made up more than half of the student body.
“You don’t want a system where you drive on one side of [Interstate] 270 and see incredible things happening and drive on the other side and wonder why these things aren’t happening,” said Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Eastern County), head of the council’s education committee and a former member of the Board of Education.
Board and council members are considering policy reforms that could more tightly regulate private donations for public schools. Both entities met in July to discuss how to handle private donations after four projects required board and council approval in fiscal 2013, double the number of similar high-dollar projects from fiscal 2011 and 2012 combined. A $247,000 request for an outdoor classroom, expanded stage and other improvements at Westbrook Elementary School also set off alarms for the Board of Education in December.
Montgomery policy says school improvement projects funded with private money should not “foster or exacerbate inequity.” Board of Education and County Council approval is required for projects that cost more than $50,000, and private money isn’t allowed to pay for teachers and other staff members.
Some council members have suggested having booster clubs or foundations pool their money and share it with schools that have fewer resources.
But some parents might find that suggestion “a bit crazy,” said Winn Gaynor, former president of the Watkins Mill High School Booster Club.
Gaynor said it is important to make things “fair across the board,” and he suggested that in the absence of fundraising, schools in lower-income areas could try to find grants to pay for improvements.
School districts across the region and country have struggled for years to find equity when it comes to private donations, in some cases regulating how such money can be used.
In the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in California, school officials voted in 2011 to block PTAs from independently raising funds to pay for school personnel, a proposal some irate parents dubbed the “Robin Hood” plan. The move led other California districts to consider similar measures.
In Fairfax, the school board and county supervisors have approved initial plans to spend $3 million in county money on 15 new synthetic turf fields in areas where the rate of free and reduced-price meals is highest. Fairfax boasts 67 synthetic turf fields, largely funded by private donors and athletics boosters from the county’s tony neighborhoods.
The Howard County Board of Education created a nonprofit foundation to leverage private donations and ensure equity of resources across the district. The foundation donates laptops to needy students and pays for innovative classroom projects that the system would not typically fund.