To the Rescue

With school districts in need, local education foundations are helping plug the budget gaps.

Bob Wittpenn and event committee member Dr. Jon Pine display another creative auction item. The event, the foundation’s main fundraiser this year, pulled in about $65,000 for the district’s schools.
Photo by Ron Wyatt.

Faux-crystal chandeliers dangled from the ceiling. Wine flowed. Women in summery dresses and men in casual jackets mingled as they moved through a buffet line, settling at round tables packed tightly into a decked-out hall in the heart of Hunterdon County horse country.

An auctioneer’s gavel stopped the chatter, and the Barn Dance, the Tewksbury Education Foundation’s main fundraiser, began. Bidders vied for a golf outing on one of the state’s top courses, Trump National in Bedminster; a chance to soar in a hot-air balloon; coveted Giants tickets along with a tailgate party; and other such offerings.

On this warm May night, amid dining and dancing, the foundation pulled in about $65,000 to make possible the types of things that strapped school districts can no longer afford, including lessons in astronomy, artists-in-residence programs, and computer workstations.

“These are really tough times for everyone,” says Jeff Page, a father who did his part with a $2,750 bid for a week’s stay on the Caribbean Island of Bequia.

Education foundations have thrived in places like Tewksbury, where parents are deeply involved in charting their children’s educational future and school support runs strong. Springing up in New Jersey around the mid-1990s, foundations have spread from wealthy suburban districts like Tewksbury and Lawrenceville to middle-income and urban districts.

For schools eager to provide the kind of enrichment that sets them apart, these nonprofits are a vital resource—especially now, with state revenues down, state aid slashed, and schools unlikely to find budgetary relief soon.

“We’re at the point where, if you want to differentiate your district in any way from what the government deems adequate, you really have to have private funding,” says Shari Powell, president of the Princeton Education Foundation, whose success can be measured in part by the more than $800,000 it pulled in over the last five years.

Quantifying how many foundations exist can be elusive; the best guess of the Mid-Atlantic Consortium of Education Foundations is 165 in New Jersey, based on tax forms filed by the groups. That puts foundations in fewer than one-third of the state’s 605 school districts.

Marcia Smith Fleres, executive director of the fledging New Jersey Education Foundation Partnership, which represents 62 foundations, calls them the state’s “best-kept secret.”

“We don’t want to be a secret anymore. We’ve never in our history faced a financial situation like we are this year,” says Fleres, in reference to the $820 million cut in state money to schools. “We want to use this time as an opportunity to grow and expand.”

Foundations cannot save teachers from being laid off or purchase essentials such as textbooks, but there is much they can do to plug gaps between what parents and school officials want and what districts, pinched by staggering property taxes and budget belt-tightening, can afford.

Grants from local education foundations have paid for musical instruments and school gardens, supplied laptops and interactive Smart Boards, brought in authors and musicians to enhance cultural instruction, and sent students on field trips.

The Madison High School Education Foundation bought a firing kiln when capital-improvement funds ran out after a kiln room was built. East Brunswick’s foundation paid for two grand pianos. And in Montclair, foundation funds sent teachers to a heralded writing workshop at Columbia University in Manhattan.

“It brings programs and materials to us that are above and beyond the school budget,” says Peter Miller, superintendent of the Somerset Hills school district, whose campus is going wireless, courtesy of the local education foundation. “It brings technology and enhancements that we simply would just not be able to afford.”

From Atlantic City to Woodcliff Lake in Bergen County, millions raised through splashy galas, corporate grants, company sponsorships, and annual giving campaigns have been funneled into local schools. According to a survey by the NJ Education Foundation Partnership, $4.67 million was collected by 52 foundations in the school year 2008-2009, ranging from $5,000 in smaller districts to as much as $450,000 in a larger one.

Much of that money comes from signature events like Robbinsville’s annual spring Golf Classic or the Thanksgiving 5K Turkey Trot that has become a local tradition in Sparta and helped raise about $245,000 since that community’s foundation was incorporated four years ago.

These marquee events serve a dual purpose: They bring in large amounts of cash in one fell swoop—and they connect the community with the schools.

Cherry Hill, a large South Jersey district, was looking to move beyond its annual golf outings when it hit upon the idea of a “Dancing With the Cherry Hill Stars” show, modeled on the TV program. “Celebrity” dancers included a school principal, a policeman, and a chef. Their cheering sections filled a 1,000-seat school auditorium. People voted by stuffing a ballot box with money. The event raised about $25,000, counting sponsors and program ads.

“It had good audience appeal,” says Eleanor Stofman, president of the Cherry Hill Education Foundation. “And it was a great way to introduce different members of the community to the foundation.”

Events that work can be a gold mine. Year after year, the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence has had its popular Toast to the Teachers fundraiser, where families honor teachers with parties that guests pay to attend. This spring, the number of soirees hit a record 126 and included backyard barbecues, cocktail parties, and wine tastings.

At one, in the backyard of a Victorian-style home in June, parents contributed $20 and children $5 for a toast for two kindergarten teachers, complete with a live animal show provided by the hosts. The teachers looked on approvingly while the children absorbed lessons about tortoises and spiders; each teacher left with a round of well wishes and a potted plant.

“At the heart of it is parents wanting to thank a teacher. And at the end of the day, over $80,000 is raised,” says Lois Whipple, executive director. “And the beautiful thing about it is, there is virtually no cost to the organization.”

Foundations able to draw support from local corporations or other nonprofits can push revenues into the six-figure range. In Princeton, a “balanced stream of funding,” which includes corporate donations, grants, and individual gifts in addition to big events, helped raise more than $100,000 last year, says Powell. In 2008, that included a $25,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; recent grants have included one from Bristol-Myers Squibb for science, math, and technology programs.

In urban districts, raising money presents a greater challenge. The Trenton Public Education Foundation relies heavily on corporate grants but also taps local resources to meet its mission of giving disadvantaged kids learning experiences similar to their suburban peers. Recently, a professor from the College of New Jersey in Ewing volunteered his time at the foundation’s invitation to address students about being an artist and show them how to prepare portfolios for college.

The Trenton foundation started with a handful of people recruited in 2003 by then superintendent James Lytle and then president of the Trenton school board, Joyce Kersey.

“At the time I went kicking and screaming. I was so busy and had no children of my own, so there was no point of reference. I asked many times, ‘What is this all about?’ ” says chair Pamela Pruitt, who has a background in promotions. “He wanted me to bring aboard people who could be instrumental in helping students move beyond their reach.”

In choosing how to grant money, foundations take their cue from superintendents and school board members, who sit on foundation boards as nonvoting members. “We make it clear that we are independent, but we also make it clear we are there to serve their needs,” says Joanne Ruberto, vice president of the Montvale Educational Foundation.

The National School Foundation Association says such funds abound in states hardest hit by budget crises, including Texas and California, as well as Florida and Oklahoma.

“It’s need based, and need is what’s driving them to the trough to get organized,” says executive director Jim Collogan. If that holds true, New Jersey should see rapid growth in the number of foundations here.
Yet Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, warns that the nonprofits, staffed by mostly volunteers, can’t be expected to replace public funding. “Foundations are important because they end up supporting things the community really believes are crucial to the school system,” she says. “But they will not be sustaining the core of education programs. That would be unreasonable and not a fair reach.”

The bleak economic climate is leading foundations to cast a wider net for funding—the NJ Partnership is sponsoring a grant-writing session this year at members’ request, while Cherry Hill is researching naming rights for libraries, auditoriums, even schools—as well as taking a longer look at what to fund. That might mean fewer butterfly habitats and more money for teachers’ professional development.

The Woodcliff Lake Educational Foundation, which has gifted schools microscopes, Smart Boards, and library books, was able to provide something the district needed most for the 2010-2011 school year—a $20,000 check to save endangered programs.

“Whatever we can do, we will do,” says Elizabeth Calderone, president of the foundation. With three children in the schools and one soon to enroll, Calderone has a personal stake in keeping programs going. “It’s a tough world we live in now, but you can’t cry about it. These children are our future.”

Bev McCarron is a freelance education writer from Bridgewater.

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