For efforts, school volunteers are earning more than an `A'

Program swaps service for funds for projects

April 22, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

The promise of a refurbished gymnasium floor, new bleachers and windows that actually open was out there for Middle River Middle School. The catch: The school had to come up with 10 percent of the cost, or $16,500.

"I was saying to myself, `I don't know how we're going to come up with that kind of money,'" said Laura Bockner, the school's PTA president.

Funding for the project comes from a federal program aimed at repairing schools in poor areas. The money is made available, however, only if the schools agree to a 10 percent match. That's no easy feat for a school trying to raise tens of thousands of dollars.

In Baltimore and Howard counties, officials are using an unusual solution to the problem. Volunteers such as Bockner will use sweat equity to work off the debt. Although volunteers will get credit for the time they work at the schools, no money will change hands; the federal program requires the service but pays for the projects.

For each hour volunteers work in the copy center, tutor students, answer phones, plan PTA fund-raisers - things they've been doing for years for free - they'll earn $10 toward the cost of the project.

"Obviously we're not that rich, so it's easier to give some volunteer hours," said Bockner, whose daughter, Rachel, is a Middle River eighth-grader. Middle River, where 43 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, has collected 620 hours (worth $6,200) since January. The schools have 10 years to pay off their debts.

The idea behind the federal Qualified Zone Academy Bonds, which are sold to pay for the projects, is to encourage public-private partnerships in the public schools.

Targeting involvement

The idea is to assure community involvement in the schools that need it the most.

The program is bringing more than $18 million to Maryland schools to replace chalkboards, buy library books, light parking lots - hardly the flashiest projects. The work is being done in aging schools where more than 35 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Most school systems in Maryland pay their debts through in-kind or financial donations from corporations or private individuals, said Yale Stenzler, executive director of Maryland's Public School Construction Program.

"The federal government is trying to encourage businesses and the private sector to be more involved in public schools," he said. "This was trying to promote that concept."

Baltimore County will get $3.3 million for 38 projects at 29 schools. Howard County, also using volunteers, is using $171,000 to replace doors at two elementary schools - Running Brook and Talbot Springs, said purchasing officer Doug B. Pindell.

"It's neat because it really gives an incentive to the community to be involved with their local schools with a little focus, a little reason and a little direction to do that," Pindell said.

Baltimore City is getting help from an unnamed philanthropist who will raise the more than $250,000 the school system needs for about 15 projects, mostly updating libraries, said Mark Smolarz, chief operating officer for the city schools.

Anne Arundel County has received $90,000 worth of school supplies for 17 schools where it is installing $997,000 worth of playground equipment, said Ed Almes, the county's maintenance supervisor.

Carroll County does not participate in the program.

Baltimore County tried to get businesses involved, but did not find a lot of interest. "We tested the waters ... and it was not something we got a lot of positive feedback on," said Sharon Norman, who coordinates volunteer programs for the county schools. "Most of the projects are what I'd call `meat and potatoes' projects. By and large they are not excessively high profile."

Bockner, the Middle River parent, spent Thursday afternoon with a digital camera in hand chasing teachers eating lunch, a custodian fixing a fan and cafeteria workers wiping tables. She is putting together a surprise for next month's teacher appreciation luncheon.

Uncertain future

While she racks up money this year, she is worried about whether there will be a PTA next year to continue the work. All of the school's teachers and staff are members of the PTA, but just 12 percent of parents, she said.

"I'm a firm believer that our children need us more when they're in middle school and high school," said Bockner, who works mornings as a paid teacher's aide at Oliver Beach Elementary. "I feel that the decisions they make are more life-altering in middle and high school."

On the other side of the county, Lansdowne Middle School is slated to get a $200,000 gymnasium renovation and a $203,000 lighting upgrade, according to county figures. Principal Thomas DeHart said his parent volunteers have worked off $6,800 of the debt. He said it's more meaningful than if the school system did the work and expected nothing in return.

"What's happening is it's something we had anyhow - we're always encouraging volunteers in the school because we want it to be a community place," DeHart said. "Parents now are making a connection and the sweat equity, there's something tangible there."

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