Schools get icing, but also need cake


September 27, 1992|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Staff Writer

An outpouring of donations -- goods, time and money -- shows that business people and others want to help Baltimore's beleaguered public schools.

But the thousands of donated books, countless hours of volunteer work and several million dollars barely make a dent in what the city needs, officials say.

Private-sector support is "the icing on the cake," says Jeff Valentine, deputy director of the Greater Baltimore Committee, which represents major businesses. "But if you don't have a cake, all the icing in the world won't hide that fact."

The city spends hundreds less per pupil than suburban districts. Catching up with Baltimore County, for example, would require at least $100 million extra.

The gap is daunting, and more state funding is the only realistic answer, says Judson Porter, fiscal director for city schools.

"However many millions you get [in private funds], it won't solve the fundamental inequity problem," he says.

Still, the private sector is trying. The picture that emerges from a Sun survey is one of widespread compassion coupled with urgent needs in the schools:

* Financial support from business, foundations and other private sources has nearly doubled since 1989 and now exceeds $4 million a year. Yet it still accounts for less than 1 percent of Baltimore's $587 million school budget.

* The Sun's series in June on shortages in city schools triggered many donations from citizens and local businesses. Gifts ranged from a $5,000 check presented to one school to a stack of writing paper left anonymously on the steps of another.

Garrison Middle School received nearly 4,000 books for its sparsely stocked library, and the Orioles collected 2,100 books donated for city schools at a recent home game.

* More than 300 area businesses participate in the Partnership Program, in which employers "adopt" a Baltimore school. Four of every five schools have at least one benefactor.

* Some schools need to depend on private donations to provide even basic educational supplies to children.

* Baltimore goes after education grants from foundations and other sources, but the national competition can be intense. Last year, the city managed to cash in on 25 percent of the contests it entered. In one, 686 school districts sought 11 grants worth $33 million. Baltimore placed 115th, a respectable finish but out of the money.

While encouraging donations, some civic leaders say the business community must also join forces with school officials to lobby for additional funding from the state.

Without this alliance, the schools will come to depend on corporations for paper, pencils and other basics that budget money should cover.

"More and more businesses are paying for fundamental things, but that's not going to get the job done," says Mr. Valentine of the GBC.

He worries that reliance on donations will create "a beggar's system with schools standing on street corners, asking for nickels and dimes."

"Not their sugar daddies"

"We are the schools' partners, not their sugar daddies," says Mr. Valentine.

Nonetheless, schools embrace these private benefactors, whose contributions help fill basic needs, including: the file cabinets at Guilford Elementary; the digital thermometers at Diggs-Johnson Middle; the computers at Southern High; even the electrical wiring inside the walls at Carver Vocational-Technical.

Guilford Elementary has partnerships with nine local companies and organizations. "Without them we'd be lost, absolutely lost," says principal Patricia Payne. "There are so many things we want to do for these children, but either our time or resources are limited."

The outside help allows the school to offer science, drama, computer and reading clubs, says Ms. Payne. "Most of these folks do this out of the goodness of their hearts, not for the tax break."

Diggs-Johnson Middle continually scrambles for private-sector aid, says principal Linda Beechener. "You do it because you need money for the basics."

In June, a local businessman walked into Tench Tilghman Elementary and presented a check for $5,000.

"It's wonderful!" says Verna Chase, assistant principal. "That money could buy a lot of crayons."

Many companies prefer to provide goods and employees' time rather than money.

What prompts a company to adopt a particular school?

Representatives of Nova Pharmaceutical visited four schools before picking Benjamin Franklin Middle in 1990.

"The others were most interested in how much money we could give them," says Linda Harned, a Nova spokeswoman.

"The Ben Franklin principal said only that he wanted the children to be exposed to role models and to know that life exists outside Curtis Bay."

As Nova officials toured the school, students asked, "Are you going to adopt us?"

"I got tears in my eyes"

"I got tears in my eyes," says Ms. Harned. "We didn't have a lot of money to give, but it's the type of environment where you get hooked."

The partnership is working. Nova donated computers and encyclopedias while sponsoring field trips and science fairs.

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