Montgomery County lawmakers are worried private fundraising for public schools is leading to an unfair advantage for some students in wealthier communities.
At a Council Education Committee hearing on Monday, Councilmember Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) asked the Board of Education to figure out how many MCPS schools have private foundations and how much money those foundations are raising.
The issue came up last year in regards to athletic booster group funding for an $80,000 scoreboard at Churchill High School in Potomac. The Board of Education must approve all private donations of more than $50,000. Many schools in the east part of the county aren’t afforded the same support through their booster clubs or foundations, if the school has a booster club of foundation at all.
As discussed in the Committee hearing today, the issue isn’t just about new scoreboards or signs for football fields.
Of the six privately-funded projects in the last three years that got BOE approval, two are from foundations dedicated to raising money for significant improvements at Bethesda elementary schools.
The Bradley Hills Elementary School Education Foundation raised $100,000 in 2011 for improvements to the school, including furniture for an expanded media center, a science room, custom bricks and benches and a depiction of the solar system in floor tiles to teach students about outer space.
The Foundation wants to raise $125,000 more to “bring our students on par with brand-new schools in our area, such as Carderock Springs in our cluster and Bells Mill in Potomac.”
“My issue personally is the divide in Montgomery County between the affluent communities and the communities that are struggling,” Ervin said. “We live in a time when it’s becoming more and more evident that there are communities where the economic differences are stark.”
The Board of Education recently approved a $247,000 contribution from the Friends of Westbrook Elementary School Foundation.
The group raised the money to renovate an all-purpose room after MCPS said the renovation would not be part of a publicly-funded addition project. In June, Foundation President Dana Rice reported progress on the group’s fundraising efforts:
I personally sat in that meeting thinking that we were now faced with the impossible. Could our community sit by and do nothing about the filth, dirt, grime, wear, tear, stained, hole-ridden and ADA-unfriendly all-purpose room that would now receive zero public funding? We all exchanged looks around the table as the construction personal spoke about options and costs.“Shoot, put any number in there,” I thought. With just 16 months to make it happen, the idea of more than doubling our goal was so tremendous that the actual projected number seemed irrelevant. Well, what is now irrelevant is what we thought so long ago. As of last week, we officially surpassed the $335,000 goal we set with the broader all-community outreach still bringing in donations.
Also of concern to Ervin are the smaller donations from foundations that do not require BOE approval.
“My concern is foundations we do not know anything about,” Ervin said. “We don’t know how much they’re raising, what they’re spending it on.”
BOE member Patricia O’Neill told Ervin that the Board would continue to talk about some sort of money pooling system to create “a more equitable situation.” O’Neill mentioned how booster clubs from Bethesda-Chevy Chase and Whitman High Schools helped fund stadium lights for Wheaton High School, the last school in the county not to have the lights.
Two years ago, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School replaced its electronic sign with $18,000 in private fundraising.
O’Neill emphasized that MCPS does not allow private fundraising to pay for additional staff.
The idea of pooling fundraising, at least when it comes to athletic facilities, seemed to appeal to Ervin.
Recently, Wootton High School in Rockville installed a $1.1 million synthetic turf field. It was funded through the efforts of the Bethesda Soccer Club. The Club raised its own funds to combine with a grant from the U.S. Soccer Foundation and $200,000 from the Wootton Booster Club.
“I would like to see if there could be a way for these booster clubs to pool their money and maybe be generous enough to share it with other schools in other parts of the county that are struggling,” Ervin said.