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Donation inequality felt among Sonoma County schools

By Kerry Benefield, The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

July 04--Brook Hill Elementary School in Santa Rosa reported $176 in donations from June 2013 to June 2014.

Exactly 635 yards to the north, Santa Rosa French-American Charter School, which operates in the same school district as Brook Hill, reported $61,110 in donations during the same period. Per pupil, Brook Hill students received 34 cents in donated funds and equipment while SRFACS students received $184.

Donors, including parents, grandparents, businesses and nonprofit organizations, stepped into the breach during California's most recent budget crisis, giving money to offset staggering cuts to school programs. But, as an analysis of one year's worth of donations made to Sonoma County's largest school district shows, giving is not equal across the district and in almost all cases, it falls in line with established income disparities between schools.

What is at stake is not just a lack of field trips or art docents. Children from low-income families often start school already behind their peers who come from more affluent families, and without significant intervention, the achievement gap widens over time.

"It's exacerbating an existing problem," said Santa Rosa School Board trustee Laura Gonzalez.

"I think it's a fundamental inequity," she said "You could say, 'Did they have the same classes?' But all the extras do add up. That could be a lot of enrichment stuff for kids who lack that."

Under a new state funding formula, those schools with a greater percentage of disadvantaged and poverty stricken students are slated to receive supplemental funds. And for years, federal Title 1 dollars have been directed to programs to help poorer students.

But officials said it remains unclear whether the state's new Local Control Funding Formula will even the playing field. In the meantime, parents at some schools continue to donate -- in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars toward technology, field trips and other programs. Meanwhile, students just a few miles away get pennies on the dollar.

A list of donations analyzed by The Press Democrat only includes those reported to the district office. In in many cases, it does not include giving by booster groups specific to programs such as athletics, agriculture or arts. But officials acknowledged that the patterns would remain largely the same, even with such donations included.

"If it's perceived that a school over there has more services than a school over here, then we should look at balancing that," said veteran trustee Frank Pugh.

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But Pugh and others were careful not to criticize parents and boosters who have volunteered countless hours and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support schools and programs.

"It's a legitimate issue and one that begs the question of what do you do about it," he said. "We don't want to get in the way of parents raising money. Trouble is, right now we don't really have a plan that addresses that."

It is not a new issue and is not unique to Santa Rosa City Schools.

"The constitution requires some sense of equity, but it creates a baseline of equity," said Valerie Cuevas, interim executive director of The Education Trust-West, an education advocacy group based on Oakland. "There is a floor, not a ceiling."

"Parents can raise money to their hearts' content and there is plenty of evidence that those enrichments are contributing to an opportunity gap," she said. "There is a set of kids getting it and a set of kids that don't."

But the problem isn't with parents being generous; it's with a state funding system that has not yet fully attacked funding imbalances, she said.

"I don't think any parent is ever the bad guy," she said.

"From a historical basis, it has been a problem on and off for many years," said Pugh, who was first elected in 1990.

In the past, caps on giving were put in place, but that prompted push-back from parents intent on helping their child's school.

And when budget times are tight, parents are asked to do even more.

Whether it's Project Graduation, field trips or school supplies, parents are encouraged to chip in. But that too, has been complicated recently.

Under a new state law that went into effect in 2013, public schools cannot demand supplies or charge fees for most equipment and activities. Under the new rules, a parent of a student in band can give a donation to fund a performance in Disneyland, but it cannot be earmarked for their student. If the grand total isn't reached, the whole crew does not go.

Schools can also ask for per-pupil donations at the beginning of the year but cannot exclude any student from participating in educational activities based on their family's donation.

Santa Rosa City Schools publishes donations in every board meeting agenda. Donors' names are typically given, as are the program or purpose for the donation. The district encourages donors to make gifts through the district office so that warranty, insurance and the district's bulk purchasing power can be utilized.

Among middle schools, Rincon Valley had the highest rate of giving and lowest percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. It also posted the highest scores on the Academic Performance Index. Across town at Comstock Middle School, where nearly 92 percent of students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, per-pupil funding was $38 last year, compared with more than $67 at Rincon Valley.

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At the district's five high schools, Santa Rosa, the district's oldest high school with the most robust alumni support, is far and away the largest benefactor because of consistent donations from the school's foundation. Santa Rosa High students benefited from nearly $80 in per pupil donations last year. Maria Carrillo was second with $50 per pupil and Montgomery had $48. At Elsie Allen, where more than eight out of 10 students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, a little more than $17 was given per student. Elsie also posts the lowest academic scores among the district's five comprehensive high schools.

"Of course Elsie has the least amount; that shouldn't surprise anybody," Gonzalez said. "They already had less to begin with. When they have fundraisers, they can't do all that stuff and they don't have a foundation to rely on."

But telling parents and alumni who have the means to give not to, especially when California lags behind nearly every other state in the nation in per pupil spending, is not the answer, officials agreed.

And experiments in pooling funding or capping donations have failed in the past.

"I think we have shown that does not work," said trustee Larry Haenel. "To interfere with fundraising capability of the site, especially with high schools, when they are interested in their alma mater, when they have all these things going on, it would be a disincentive."

Doug Bower, associate superintendent of the district, credited the formula used by the nonprofit SchoolsPlus, which for more than two decades has raised money at community events and distributed funds evenly for the specific purpose of supporting athletics, arts and music. This spring, each of the district's five large high schools received $22,000 and Ridgway High -- a small alternative campus -- and all five middle schools each got $12,000.

Officials said it remains unclear how the new Local Control Funding Formula will affect school financing.

"There really is a move now, especially by California, to equalize opportunity," Haenel said.

Gonzalez, who said her own schooling included enrichment opportunities that her family was unable to provide, does not begrudge parents who chip in for their child's school.

"I appreciate parents donating where they found a need. I have no qualms with that," Gonzalez said. "It's more a philosophical level. They shouldn't have to do that. The state should take care of that."

Staff researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com and on Twitter @benefield.

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Who gets what?

More than $725,400 in donations of money and equipment was made through the Santa Rosa City Schools district office and earmarked by the donor for particular campuses and specific program last year. The following is a breakdown of how much each school received -- in total and per pupil -- between June 2013 and June 2014. The chart also shows the percentage of students at each campus who qualify for a free or reduced priced lunch and how the school scored on the California's Academic Performance Index.

School Donations--Per pupil donations % of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch--API*--

Santa Rosa City Schools High Schools

Santa Rosa$158,162$79.75 38.4 801

Maria Carrillo$80,402$50.30 16.6 867

Montgomery $85,032$48.45 36.1 788

Piner $30,583$32.43 59.8 737

Elsie Allen $17,792$17.20 80.7 679

Middle Schools

Rincon Valley$56,685$67.60 17.5 893

Cook $19,791$48.15 84.5 708

Comstock $14,825$38.80 91.8 724

Santa Rosa$19,629$29.65 57.5 788

Slater $18,968$26.12 46 803

Elementary and K-8 schools

Santa Rosa French-American Charter School$61,110$184.60 19.4 875

Hidden Valley$66,326$96.12 20.5 899

Proctor Terrace$42,465$92.11 32.9 887

Albert Biella$14,637$33.49 78 777

Santa Rosa Accelerated Charter School**--$3,445$26.91 2.3 964

Abraham Lincoln$9,122$24.39 95 727

Steele Lane$7,121$16.07 92.1 758

Luther Burbank$5,602$13.24 93 790

James Monroe$5,719$12.96 94.5 735

Cesar Chavez Language Academy$770$11.66 N/A

Helen Lehman$5,566$10.80 90.9 795

Santa Rosa Charter School for the Arts$1,528$4.30 31.7 853

Brook Hill $176$0.34 90.8 739

--Between June 2013-June 2014

--Based on 2012-13 figures

*--2013 Growth API

****Serves fifth and sixth graders

Source: Santa Rosa City Schools

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(c)2014 The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.)

Visit The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, Calif.) at www.pressdemocrat.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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