Schools hold out their hands for help

After budget cuts, fund-raisers are for basic supplies, not extras

March 16, 2009 

Three first-grade teachers at Enslen Elementary School made a simple plea to parents, marked "Urgent" and copied on fluorescent orange paper. They were asking for donations of reams or boxes of copy paper.

Modesto administrators froze school budgets in January to save enough money to cover employee paychecks if funding from the state government didn't come through.

"First grade is such a crucial time of consistent practicing," the teachers said in the note.

As principals and teachers prepare for a second year of serious cuts in education funding from the state, fund-raising efforts will be focused less on supplying playground equipment and marquee signs and more on basic items such as pencils and paper.

Although the recession is causing families and businesses to spend sparingly, schools, both public and private, need help now more than ever.

"Everybody is hurting, but we still need to help," said Ann Seymour, a parent of three Orchard Elementary School students and member of that Modesto school's Parent-Teacher Association.

She urges everyone, including parents, grandparents and community members, to make small donations or volunteer in classrooms or at fund-raisers.

The easiest way to find out what a school needs is to ask a teacher or principal, Seymour said. It may be as simple as volunteering during a book fair or helping sponsor a field trip.

Also, if a school district has an education foundation, people are encouraged to find a way to participate in one of its projects.

More than just bake sales

Some California schools have gotten creative. A few campuses in the Bay Area are auctioning items at eBay, including objects made in class by students. Others have placed paid advertisements on school Web sites.

More basic ways of raising money are through jog-a-thons, pancake breakfasts and community yard sales.

Sixth-graders at Sonoma Elementary School in Modesto are in the middle of a months-long fund-raiser to pay for outdoor education. Funding has been downsized for the spring science camp, and teachers and parents don't want to see only students from more affluent households attend.

"Some students don't have neighbors or parents to sell to," parent Jane Pascal said about the usual candy sales. "People don't have the extra money to buy things."

So Pascal and others have solicited businesses and organized other fund-raisers such as a karaoke ice cream night this week and outdoor movie nights last fall.

"My son went (to outdoor education) last year. Some of these kids have never been away from home, so it's kind of exciting. ... They learn science and history," Pascal said. "It's an opportunity (teachers) really cannot duplicate."

Some programs aimed at complementing classroom learning might be dropped to concentrate on funding the basics, a trend some schools already have noticed.

Nearly two in three California PTA groups have been asked to increase fund-raising efforts to fill budget gaps, according to an online survey of nearly 500 PTA groups last fall. The most common funding requests are for classroom supplies such as pencils and paper, library books, and computer software and hardware.

Greater inequities likely

California State PTA President Pam Brady warned that the achievement gap between middle-class and poor students could widen because of the schools they attend -- those that do or don't have the private means to fill the budget holes.

"When parents are asked to help fund basic programs and services at our schools, it's a clear sign we've cut too deeply," Brady said in a statement about the survey. "This also creates greater inequities among our schools, because not all parent and community groups can pitch in to backfill services in the same way."

The effects of budget cuts will become more noticeable once the slashing for the 2009-10 school is finalized.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.

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