Going once, going twice: Schools sold on auctions Bids: Private schools find putting everything from trips, to art to household and specialty items on the block is fund-raising gold.

November 20, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

When auctioneer Jon Levinson opens the bidding tomorrow night on "A Day with Dr. J" -- the Park School headmaster -- or a week in a home on Sarasota Bay, Fla., he will not only be coaxing cash out of the audience for a good cause, but also fueling a tradition that has become a pace-setter for Baltimore area schools.

Levinson will be kicking off the 10th biennial Park School Auction, a black-tie gala that mixes fund-raising with fun and serves informally as a model for many other school auctions in this area.

The Park School auction is the granddad -- or grandma -- of private school charity auctions, going back to 1979, when the fledgling fund-raiser brought in $31,000 and convinced even the skeptics that this was a worthwhile endeavor.

Since then, Park has held its auction every two years, upping the ante and the profits each time and raising nearly $2 million for its tuition assistance program.

Private, parochial and public schools throughout the area have been following Park's lead -- some on a similarly grand scale, others more modestly.

Roland Park Elementary and Middle School, a city public school, recently held its "Affordable Auction '98," a low-overhead evening that netted about $13,000.

For the Park auction, about 600 people are expected to pay $125 each for dinner at the Timonium Fairgrounds and the privilege of bidding on auction items. Park's chairwoman, Eileen Koenigsberg, hopes to net $250,000 -- $50,000 more than the last Park auction.

Despite the proliferation of auctions, they don't seem to be losing popularity.

Where else can a person make a hefty contribution to a school and get a trip to Scotland, a $6,000 party or a parking space that allows you to be at the head of the pick-up line every afternoon?

"It's a nice way to donate to the school and come home with something," says Barbara Harp, director of parent programs at Bryn Mawr, which has been holding auctions biennially since 1986.

Park's auction will feature 53 items in the live auction and another 850 for silent bidding. Auction-goers can bid on a winter break on Captiva Island, Fla., a Wurlitzer juke box, two tickets to "The Late Show with David Letterman" and a complete orthodontic treatment with a market value of $4,500.

"We've got a reputation to uphold," said Koenigsburg. "We were the first in the area to do this."

Along with the lavish offerings are dozens of items in the not-so-budget-breaking department: a wooden salad bowl set, a foot wine rack, three accent pillows.

The reason these school fund-raisers remain popular is simple, says Debbie Bannister: "They raise so much darn money."

Bannister is co-chair of next spring's Friends School auction and a veteran chairwoman of two at the Jemicy School in Owings Mills.

"At Jemicy, I was there for the first one. They had hoped and prayed they would make $5,000 and they made $45,000," she recalled.

Last year's auction, the school's fifth, netted Jemicy $190,000, and enabled the 120-student school to replace the dilapidated trailers it used for tutoring with a new building opening this month.

At many schools, the use varies from year to year, but at Park the cause stays the same: Proceeds go to the scholarship fund and support about 12 students. Bryn Mawr uses its auction money to ensure that teachers' salaries remain competitive; Roland Park spent last year's profits on technology, and Friends plans to renovate its gyms with this spring's earnings.

But profits don't come easily.

Koenigsberg has spent 16 months as a full-time volunteer putting the Park auction together, with help from more than 200 parents, alumni and friends. Hundreds of businesses and individuals have donated auction items.

"An auction's as good as the items you sell," said Levinson, vice president of Alex Cooper Auctioneers in Towson and a frequent charity auction participant.

"I owed favors to every single person in Baltimore," said Manya Greif, who brought the auction to Park after attending one at The Sidwell Friends School in Washington. She chaired the first two events and continues to be involved.

Greif says the appeal is wider than just the money: "It's for a great cause. It's a really fun evening. You couldn't keep it going if it wasn't fun."

Wendy Neumann, development director at Jemicy, adds another attraction: "It's such a community builder. It brings us together with a nice focus."

This is particularly important at Jemicy, which, because of its mission to serve dyslexic youngsters, attracts students from all over the metropolitan area.

In addition, the Jemicy auction makes a point of attracting people not connected to the school -- partly to educate the public about its goals and partly to spread around the giving, so that parents who pay high tuition and contribute to annual campaigns are not the only auction patrons.

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