Schools consider vehicle for funds

Howard may set up foundation to raise, spread private money

`Strengthening ... community involvement'

Other counties use mechanism, which can reduce disparities

February 28, 2005|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Following a trend around the country for public schools, the Howard County system is considering the establishment of a nonprofit private education foundation to tap into the wealth of the affluent county and reduce fund-raising disparities among schools.

Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin is working with the school system's legal team to establish guidelines for a foundation, which he hopes to present to the school board in the spring. A task force of community members will probably define the foundation's role and function, Cousin said.

Education foundations have become more common for public school systems across the country. They solicit private and corporate donations, provide grants to needy schools and act as intermediaries in establishing partnerships between businesses and schools.

"It's a way of strengthening what is already our greatest asset, which is community involvement," said Howard County school board member Joshua Kaufman.

Education foundations in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties have raised money for a number of projects. Carroll County school officials also are considering a foundation, said Robin Kable, coordinator of business and community partnerships for the Carroll County school system.

The Baltimore County Education Foundation has raised money to build a greenhouse at Towson High School, establish a day care program at Kenwood High School and provide college scholarships. The organization, established in 1992 by the Baltimore County school board, also makes grant requests on behalf of schools and provides a mechanism for schools to raise money without incurring administrative costs, said foundation President John A. Hayden III.

"I think some of the things that most impressed me is the opportunity, from time to time, even with $1,000 to meet the needs of the schools that are not recognized by the budget process," he said.

The idea of establishing a foundation in Howard County came up amid discussions over the school system's fund-raising and donation policies, which the school board revised last month. Board members questioned whether fund raising by outside groups, such as PTAs and booster clubs, were creating inequities in the system.

The school board has no authority over PTA or booster fund raising, except when events are held on school grounds, and cannot limit the amount of money raised. Policy guidelines govern fund-raisers conducted by schools and school-sponsored groups.

"One purpose of the foundation would be to balance out equity issues raised by private donations to the schools," said board Chairman Courtney Watson. "In other words, equity issues that are sometimes created by outside organizations' fund raising for particular schools."

Advocates say education foundations can supplement dwindling tax dollars for schools and help balance resources among schools.

"Equity is a huge issue people are dealing with," said Jodi Bender Sweeney, president of the Foundation for Madison's Public Schools in Wisconsin, who's trying to create a national network for the estimated 3,000 to 4,000 public school foundations. "There isn't any more government funding for education."

Howard County has the highest median family income - $103,000 a year - in the country, according to the county's Economic Development Authority, and boasts one of the highest per-pupil spending ratios in Maryland.

Through fund-raising activities such as gift wrap and candy drives, silent auctions and bull roasts, PTAs and boosters in Howard County raise thousands of dollars each year. These funds support athletic teams and pay for many programs, including cultural arts events, after-prom festivities, scholarships, and parent and student seminars. Funds spent on programs are recognized as donations by the school system.

A report detailing school and outside fund raising during the 2003-2004 year showed a wide disparity among schools. One elementary school PTA reported raising more than $100,000, while another raised $11,000.

Equity is hard to measure, said Deborah Wessner, president of the PTA Council of Howard County, which would support a foundation that is independent of the school system and its board.

"If equity means parity, the same amount of dollars per school, then there would be a reallocation of teachers to other schools," Wessner said. "The bias is to put more teachers and resources into schools that have lower [test] scores."

State law requires school board members to maintain a "reasonably uniform system of public schools that is designed to provide quality education and equal educational opportunities for all children."

An education foundation would not supplant money or essential programs provided by the school system's operating and capital budgets, but board members say it could help pay for extra programs. Watson pointed to a project that raised $1.1 million to install stadium lights at the county's 11 high schools.

Sun staff writers Liz F. Kay and Laura Loh contributed to this article.

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