School Districts of the Rich and Famous

With money tight, west metro schools are accruing wealthy endowments and paying for teachers

Last year Lorie Line headlined a show with her pop chamber orchestra that included a family-style dinner for 1,000 people. It was a typical affair for Line, a local new-agey jazz pianist, but with a twist. The event was held whose daughter attends school in the district, had raised $82,000. The concert set the tone for the alliance's work, and fundraising for public schools suddenly took on a new level of sophistication. Soon enough, other districts would be following suit.

Started four years ago by parents who wanted to give their children opportunities on a par with their private-school peers, Orono's foundation has morphed into one of the most successful school funds in Minnesota. This summer, the group's grant giving hit the million-dollar mark. Just as notably, the money isn't being used to build a swimming pool or a hockey rink. The alliance has ventured into uncharted territory by directing donations toward teachers' salaries.

The Orono group started a year before the tax reform that some public education proponents argue is at the root of the current school-funding crisis. In the old days, schools were funded largely by local property taxes. Now, since 2001, the vast majority of public money for schools comes from the state--a maneuver that was supposed to equalize resources between poor and wealthy districts. Since the reform, however, the state has cut public school funding and limited how much localities could raise taxes to make up the difference. In the last couple of years, many districts have been forced to slash millions of dollars from already tight budgets.

Tammy Hauser of the Orono Alliance for Education has helped raise $180,000 for four teachers
Raoul Benavides
Tammy Hauser of the Orono Alliance for Education has helped raise $180,000 for four teachers

Parents in the suburbs, particularly the western suburbs of Minneapolis, have the means to do something about it. What started as funding mechanisms for supplemental programming have turned into well-oiled foundations with nonprofit 501c3 status, executive directors, and endowments. While wealthy parents are doing what is needed to maintain quality education for their children, the changing role of foundations in Minnesota questions a longstanding tradition that public education should be funded by public dollars--and raises the specter of privatization. And there are concerns about equity. Not every district can lean on Lorie Line for a favor.

Orono's executive director Tammy Hauser has no qualms about the work of the foundation and the funding of operating expenses. "It might be radical for Minnesota, but in the broader picture, it really is not," says Hauser. She cites work in California, where the state's tax reform hit schools hard in the early 1980s, leading foundations to start funding teachers' salaries several years ago.

But even Hauser admits that the foundation's unexpected funding to hire four teachers could cause heads to turn. This summer, after parents learned class sizes were larger than expected, a group of them approached school administration seeking approval to pay out-of-pocket for additional teachers. With the go-ahead from the school board, a few from the foundation began calling parents of children who would be affected by larger class sizes. With $45,000 needed to hire one teacher, the group raised $180,000 in two weeks--enough to add four elementary teachers.

Hauser says it is only because the district's new superintendent, Karen Orcutt, gave her support that the group could direct funds to add specific teachers. Not all superintendents and school boards are buying into the idea of using private donations for what used to be paid for by public dollars.

In Delano, a district just west of Orono with 1,800 students on the cusp of the rural/urban divide, Superintendent Howard Carlson supports the efforts of parents to start a foundation of their own. But he hopes it will never need to raise money for teachers' salaries. The leader of the Delano Area Educational Foundation, Sarah Gallagher, says she doesn't think the foundation could raise enough to support teachers' salaries, but she thinks foundations have become a school necessity. "It's just kind of where we all have to go," says Gallagher.

Anecdotal evidence shows Gallagher is right. Orono's Hauser also runs a consortium of public school foundations in Minnesota. Four years ago, there were 10 foundation representatives on the list; now there are 54, representing schools from Edina to Rochester.

 

David Else, the director of the National Center for Public and Private School Foundations, estimates that there are over 5,000 foundations nationally, and he says most of them are staying out of the business of buying teachers partly because it comes with too many risks. "It becomes pretty easy for a state to give up their responsibility," says Else. "It turns into an issue of public policy."

Parents in Hopkins, another district in the western suburbs, started the Hopkins Education Foundation in 1995 and have since granted over $650,000 for things such as software to publish the yearbook and Palm Pilots for students with specific learning disabilities. Even without as much wealth as its neighbors in Orono, Minnetonka, and Wayzata, the foundation's fundraising is done in style. The annual Hopkins event, the Royal Gala, recently moved to International Market Square to accommodate a larger crowd. KARE 11's Roxane Battle, a Hopkins parent, was on hand.

Last year, Hopkins started the STAR Fund, a onetime campaign to save teachers. Led by Kris Newcomer and Julie Woolfrey, they held small get-togethers educating parents about the district's funding, the state's role in it, and the anticipated cuts. Newcomer, a parent of children in the district, says the parents weren't surprised to be asked for donations to pay for teachers' salaries. "They were saddened it had to come to this," says Newcomer.

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