July 05, 2012A committee of the Guilford County Board of Education is considering a misguided policy that would almost certainly kill private donations to schools by PTAs, community groups, booster clubs and private individuals by taxing private donations by 50 to 75 percent.
The draft policy, which is being considered but has not been approved by the school board's Donated Funds for Construction Committee and has not yet reached the school board, would require such groups to raise 50 percent to 75 percent more than their target goals which would go into an "equity fund" for schools that haven't gotten such donations.
The policy change would take the form of modifications to the school board's already existing policy known as ECK – "Contributions and Purchases by Outside Agencies for School Use."
The draft policy, and the draft procedure that accompanies it, are preliminary enough that the additions to them are still in red text.
The draft policy states, "In order to address legitimate concerns regarding the equitable distribution of private donations, contributions and gifts, the Board requires a matching donation of 50-75 percent of the total value of the gift and/or matching funds to an Equity Fund that will be maintained and administered by the Superintendent and/or his/her designee for this purpose."
There are numerous proposed changes to the policy. Guilford County Schools Chief Operations Officer Andy LaRowe said the additions to the policy dealing with the equity fund came from Guilford County Schools Chief of Staff Nora Carr – which means they would have been approved by Guilford County School Superintendent Mo Green. Carr was out of the office this week and could not be reached for comment.
"In answer to your question on the 'equity part,' the drafts were prepared by Nora Carr and she would need to answer the question," LaRowe wrote in an email. "Material for the draft policy and procedure documents are the result of discussion by the committee and research of similar policies and procedures from other school districts."
The reconsideration of the private donations policy was triggered by an effort by a group of Millis Road Elementary School supporters to raise $1.5 million from private donors to build and furnish a new building at the elementary school that would be a combination gym, assembly space and four-classroom expansion.
If the policy were in place, the Millis Road supporters – who are going much further than most donors and actually proposing to construct a building that the school needs and the school board hasn't funded – would have to raise, instead of $1.5 million, $2.25 million at the 50 percent premium and $2.62 million at the 75 percent premium.
In other words, a bunch of community volunteers would have to raise an additional $750,000 or $1,125,000 over their already lavish proposed donation.
The problems with this policy are legion. The most obvious is that it would kill most large donations to the school system. It's fairly astonishing that a group of Millis Road supporters, organized by Millis Road Principal Russell Harper, even working hard for almost four years, has come up with a plan for a $1.5 million donation that would pay for an entire building. It's hard to picture that same group, despite their and Harper's efforts, coming up with $2.62 million, unless they've got an extraordinarily wealthy backer – and even if they did, few other groups would.
A second problem is that, if building or equipping schools by private donations were to take off in Guilford County, as it has in California and other places where school funding has been slashed, it would create a slush fund for a superintendent – or his designee – to use as desired.
The draft procedure that accompanies the policy does call for money raised from the 50 to 75 percent tax on private donations to be held in escrow – but it does not set standards for, or limits on, a superintendent's use of the money.
"To help ameliorate equity concerns, GCS requires that a matching amount be raised for equity purposes and/or a minimum of 50-75 percent of the total cash amount raised," the procedure states. "GCS will hold these matching funds in escrow to be used to address capital improvement projects at schools that lack similar fundraising capacity."
That would leave the superintendent enormous latitude, although a school board vote would be required for projects costing more than a yet-determined amount.
The draft policy makes a token nod to Guilford County taxpayers who pay for much of the Guilford County Schools operating budget and most of its construction, through school bonds. It reads, "The Guilford County Board of Education (Board of Education) recognizes and appreciates the financial support received from local taxpayers as well as from state and federal sources." That's nice of them.
The proposed additions to the policy then get down to the meat of the matter – private donations.
One states, "While the Board of Education strongly advocates for adequate public funding of public schools and school districts, it does recognize that the active search for and the prudent use of private philanthropic donations and/or in-kind contributions may help fund/support special initiatives and supplement ongoing programs."
So the school board will take money from private sources. That is nothing new. Guilford County Schools has taken large donations from foundations, primarily the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation, as well as small donations or in-kind contributions from PTAs and booster clubs, since its inception in 1992.
An addition in the draft policy states that the school board "recognizes that parent groups, alumni associations, and other groups may want to raise funds from private donors to improve, enhance, expand, or build new school or district facilities, or to meet other, unmet capital needs (including furniture, fixtures, equipment, for example) when adequate public funding is not available."
The draft policy and procedure do not address the issue of whether the 50 to 75 percent tax on raised funds would be applied to foundations, or merely to parent groups struggling to help their schools.
The inclusion of parent groups, alumni associations and "other groups" implies that the proposed policy would apply to PTAs, active alumni associations such as that at Dudley High School, which regularly appears before the school board, and probably booster clubs, under the "other groups" phrase.
That worries parents and alumni at schools other than Millis Road as well.
It certainly worries Susan Tysinger, the president of the Page Alumni and Friends Association, another very active alumni group.
Tysinger spoke to the school board at its June 28 meeting, saying the Page alumni association is worried about the auditorium at Page, which was built in 1958. She said the auditorium is in bad condition. The alumni association has created a Friends of the Page Auditorium group to attempt to renovate it.
The most recent edition of The Page, the newsletter of the alumni association, states that the Friends of the Page Auditorium has a preliminary plan to renovate the auditorium, and that several members of the group have met with a professional theater consultant with many years of experience with high school theater and auditorium renovations. It states that the group hopes to work with the consultant to come up with a conceptual design plan.
"The plan itself is a large expense, but it will be our blueprint for a first class community theater. Any donations for start-up expenses of this project can be made through the Page Alumni and Friends Association," the article states. "Additional committee members are always welcome!"
Tysinger told the school board that the renovation of the Page auditorium, to be paid for by private donations, is expected to cost $2 million. That would mean that, if the equity policy were in place, the Friends of the Page Auditorium would have to raise between $3 million and $3.5 million, possibly an insurmountable hurdle.
Tysinger said, "Taking from one group to give to another will only destroy the groups that are in place."
Equity among schools is a problem in Guilford County, as it is throughout the United States. The difference between well-built, well-maintained and well-equipped schools and less well-funded schools is particularly noticeable in elementary schools, which don't usually have the strong alumni groups and booster clubs that high schools have. Some Guilford County Schools are in terrible shape and are poorly equipped. Others are brand new and have every doodad and geegaw you can put on a school
Part of Green's strategic plan calls for a baseline of facilities and equipment that would be provided to all schools – an admirable goal, which should be implemented over time. But the baseline policy envisions equalizing schools through the school system's operating and maintenance budgets and, when available, school bonds – not by slapping a tax on parent and alumni groups.
As Guilford County Schools officials have said in meetings on the Millis Road proposal, one of their concerns with private donations is that a group will begin to raise money for a building or project and then not be able to meet its goal. That problem would be compounded greatly by taxing the groups by 50 to 75 percent.