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Way Beyond Bake Sales: The $1 Million PTA
By KYLE SPENCER
EACH fall, parents at the Anderson School, a highly regarded K-8 on the Upper West Side for gifted and talented students, receive letters from the PTA emblazoned with the school’s elegant “A” logo. Though Anderson indulges in the usual trappings of public-school fund-raising — bake sales, book fairs, auctions — this letter is blunter: It urges parents to simply write a check. And it suggests an amount: This school year, it was $1,300.
Ayda Gibson, 44, the mother of a first grader at the school, said she did not mind being asked.
“If they don’t ask,” she said, “they won’t get.”
Many parents, it would seem, agree with her. In the 2009-10 school year, Anderson’s PTA and a much smaller alumni group raised $1,001,302, putting the school in a remarkable category — the New York City public schools that raise amounts in the $1 million range annually.
They are schools like Public School 6 on East 82nd Street, where big donors can have their children’s names engraved on plaques on chairs in the auditorium. Its PTA raised $973,518 last school year. Or P.S. 290, also on East 82nd, a popular school widely praised for its writing program, where the PTA raised $949,759 in the 2009-10 school year.
Or P.S. 87, a coveted Upper West Side elementary a stone’s throw from the Museum of Natural History, where the parents’ association brought in $1.57 million in that same period: about $800,000 in fund-raising, the other $700,000 from the fees the association charged for the after-school programs.
At a time when the city’s schools have had their financing cut by an average of 13.7 percent over the past five years, the money has buffered these schools from the hard choices many others have had to make. In a system where many parents’ associations raise no money at all, these schools have earned a special name among parents and school consultants: “public privates.”
“Many now have amenities that can compete with private school offerings,” said Emily Glickman, the president of Abacus Guide Educational Consulting, a private-school admissions company, on the Upper East Side.
These schools are in some of the city’s wealthiest ZIP codes, most of them in Manhattan, and their students typically garner top scores on statewide exams. (In 2011, at P. S. 290, 88.9 percent of students were proficient in reading, and 92.9 percent demonstrated proficiency in math. The citywide averages for the subjects were 43.9 percent and 57.3 percent.)
And in a system where money and race are inextricably intertwined, most of these schools serve populations with a far greater percentage of white students than the system over all, where about 15 percent of the students are white. P. S. 6,for example, is 70 percent white, as is P.S. 234, a school in TriBeCa that also raises hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. The city’s Education Department does not track how much individual PTAs raise. There is no central clearinghouse for this information, and parents are often reluctant to publicly share fund-raising numbers. To put together a list of the top-earning PTAs, The New York Times analyzed Internal Revenue Service filings posted on GuideStar, a research company that tracks nonprofit organizations and charitable giving. The information is not comprehensive, so there may be other schools that raised similar amounts that were not included. But it presents a snapshot of how some of the richest schools have fared.
“These rich schools are semiprivate,” said Troy Torrison, 47, a creative director who has a third grader at P. S. 234, which raised $541,712 in the 2009-10 school year. The Taste of TriBeCa, a culinary festival with many of the neighborhood’s best-known chefs participating, provided a substantial amount. “These other schools are public, public with no extras,” he said.
HOUSED in a shabby 1950s brick building, P. S. 87 does not look rich from the outside. But step inside a bustling third-grade classroom, and signs of the parents’ association’s efforts abound. One of the school’s teachers, Laura Fine, 30, pointed to three Mac computers, a printer, a 3-D digital projector, science kits, chess sets, new desk chairs, a dozen dictionaries and $28.70 hardcover writing guides that students keep in their desks.
“They paid for all this,” Ms. Fine said of the parents’ association. “And some classrooms have four or five Macs.”
The association pays for a fitness coach during recess and a chef to assist the one hired by the Education Department, and it keeps the comfortable, well-lighted library stocked with books and computers. To keep germs at bay, there are parent-financed eco-friendly hand-sanitizing machines on walls throughout the school. And the association is undertaking a schoolwide air-conditioner installation — at a cost of $4,000 a room.
“We’re in a community that is very generous,” said Rachel Laiserin, 43, who is one of the school’s two parents’ association presidents.
The Education Department prohibits parents from paying the salaries of full-time “core subject” teachers. Deidrea A. Miller, a department spokeswoman, said the rule existed to avoid the hiring of teachers who might lose their jobs the next year because a school PTA decided it no longer could — or wanted to — finance them. “It’s a financial issue,” she said.
PTAs are permitted to pay for substitutes, aides, enrichment teachers and assistants, which many of the city’s wealthiest PTAs do readily. This year, the PTA at P.S. 199 on the Upper West Side spent close to $100,000 on a science and technology teacher. And PTAs at P. S. 6 and the Anderson School spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on teaching assistants to buffer students from the ballooning class sizes caused by budget cuts. Assistant teachers work with students on reading and writing, help with class projects and sometimes do lunch duty or bathroom patrol, depending on the school.
But the financing goes beyond the classroom. At P. S. 290, the PTA has treated each second grader in recent years to 15 swim lessons at Asphalt Green, a 5 ½-acre sports campus overlooking the East River, and has helped to pay for a fifth-grade overnight trip to a horse ranch in Highland, N.Y.
At P. S. 6, the PTA and its alumni foundation have helped defray the cost of a rooftop ecology center with an 800-square-foot greenhouse and a turtle pond.
And in recent years, at P. S. 199, the PTA has financed sundry enrichment classes, automatic toilet flushers and September bedbug detection for every classroom. Last year, the school raised close to $500,000.
Principals at these schools say their parents’ associations do more than collect money; they work in tandem with the administration throughout the year to come up with monetary solutions, routinely swapping items from one budget to the other so that principals can use money for full-time staff while the PTA covers the expenses allowed by the Education Department.
In February, at the highly rated P. S. 89 in TriBeCa, whose PTA raised nearly $250,000 in the 2009-10 school year, the principal, Veronica Najjar, said she did not hesitate to approach parents when she wanted to buy several $600 iPads for the school’s lower-grade classrooms, hire a part-time office secretary to relieve the staff during what was expected to be a particularly busy registration season and enroll her teachers in a course on the new Common Core curriculum. According to PTA meeting minutes and her own account, the PTA voted and almost immediately wrote her a check.
“I’ve never been told no by my PTA,” Ms. Najjar said.
City officials say that kind of collaboration is unheard-of at most of the schools in the city. Elba Velez, a family advocate for District 10 in the Bronx, which includes the wealthy Riverdale neighborhood as well as some of the most segregated and poorest-performing schools in the system, says that at many of her schools, PTAs do not even ask parents for money.
“For a variety of reasons, they make a decision not to,” she said.
Presidents of parents’ associations at schools in high-earning areas describe this discrepancy as “complicated” and “tricky.” But many are unapologetic about advocating for their own children when the city has shaved, in some cases, up to $1 million from their schools’ budgets over the past five years.
“There is no crime in wanting to give directly to your child’s education,” said Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, a PTA president at P. S. 199.
THOUGH some parents say that poorer schools receive Title I financing — federal dollars allocated to schools serving large percentages of low-income children — giving them a lift that wealthier schools do not get, others dismiss that argument. “Title I money is restrictive,” said Yolanda Smith, a senior education analyst in the city’s Independent Budget Office. “It is only supposed to be used for activities specifically related to student achievement. By contrast, PTA money can be used to buy almost anything.”
Dennis M. Walcott, New York City’s schools chancellor, said that he was well aware of “the disparity issue,” but he did not want to penalize parents for getting involved.
Instead, he has worked through the Fund for Public Schools, a nonprofit group designed, in part, to support low-income schools. The fund has provided over 250 library grants of up to $10,000 each and has helped 70 schools upgrade their art spaces with grants of up to $20,000 each.
Department officials say the city has also moved to curb inequities within the system through its budgeting process by instituting a “fair funding formula,” which was put in place, Ms. Miller, the department spokeswoman, said, to allow the city “to direct more resources to schools that need it the most.”
Schools with higher-needs children have received more dollars for each child, but because of budget cuts, the city has not been able to make use of the formula fully. The year it was instituted, the budget office reported that students identified as needy received an average of $217 more than what they would have received under the old system.
The Anderson PTA says it spends over $1,600 for each student.
In some cities, like Portland, Ore., schools are required to share some of the money raised.
Asked how they felt about pooling fund-raising money, some New York City parents’ association presidents were cautious.
Ms. Laiserin, of P. S. 87, said she thought parents might consider some limited amount of sharing.
But Rebecca Levey, her co-president, was not so sure. She stood in the school’s manicured garden — amid tulips, roses and wisteria — built with money acquired through Councilwoman Gale A. Brewer’s office and landscaped with parent dollars. The garden is enclosed by a wrought-iron fence adorned with an iron sun, a reminder of the school’s motto: “One Family Under the Sun.”
“I think it’s very hard to raise money and not have control over how that money is spent,” Ms. Levey said.