Board of Ed gets first crack at districtwide fundraising agreement

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education members (from left): Ralph Mechur, Nimish Patel, Jose Escarce and Maria Leon-Vazquez. Not pictured: Ben Allen, Laurie Lieberman, Oscar De La Torre. 

The Board of Education got its first look at an agreement with the local nonprofit in charge of raising funds for districtwide programs Thursday, but key points of the arrangement are still in flux.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Santa Monica-Malibu Education Foundation commits to raising money to support programs picked out by the district.

Money will be raised a year in advance, and any new programs will have to be vetted through the Education Foundation and the Superintendent’s Advisory Committee, an assembly of parent-teacher group representatives, district officials and others.

“We identify the priorities and they fund them,” summarized Superintendent Sandra Lyon.

The agreement with the Education Foundation puts meat on the bones of a policy set by the board almost a year ago to ensure that instructional programs be paid for on a district-wide basis rather than at individual schools.

It sought to correct a disparity that existed between schools with parent groups that could raise serious cash and pay for extra classes like arts and music and those that historically raised less.

Although much of the language has been hammered out, the Education Foundation needs two major pieces in place before it can begin raising money in earnest, said Linda Gross, executive director of the foundation.

The first is a naming policy so that the foundation has the latitude to recognize large donors.

While the foundation doesn’t plan to offer school naming rights, things like fields, individual buildings or even specific programs could find themselves branded with the name of a generous donor.

“It gives us the ability to have donor recognition,” Gross said.

The second is somewhat more fundamental.

The Education Foundation board of directors and staff knows that it will be funding “priority programs” for the district, and that it has a $4 million target to reach.

What it doesn’t know is what those programs are, and that can make fundraising a challenge, Gross said.

“Fundraising is about matching donor interest to identified priorities,” she said.

It’s hard to sell hypotheticals.

Lyon has a plan, but she’s not giving out any details.

“I’m proposing something that’s changing that direction,” she said. “I haven’t publicly vetted it yet and it has not yet gone through the (Superintendent’s Advisory Committee).”

Lyon said she’ll bring the new plan before the committee after she’s run it by the unions, which she hopes to do next week.

Lyon has been tightlipped about it, even with Gross, who will be responsible for making the plan a reality.

“She’s got a plan she’s excited about, one that makes the best impact on students and that she thinks will excite and engage the community,” Gross said.

Some still have reservations about the plan, the parts of it that are public.

Traditionally, the Education Foundation has raised roughly $400,000 a year for programs for the district. Now, the group will have to up that by $4 million. It recently reorganized its operations and hired Paul Lanning of RPR Fundraising to help it meet the ambitious goal.

It also puts the Education Foundation in competition with those PTAs who are still raising money to fund existing programs while they wait for the districtwide program to launch.

Whether or not that’s enough to meet the needs of the school community has yet to be seen.

Parents have rumbled that the $4 million doesn’t get close to the amount raised by PTAs when fundraising was a free for all and parents could donate directly to their schools.

To effectively “raise all boats” to the level of spending that parents made possible at Pt. Dume Marine Science School, the Education Foundation would have to pull in roughly $5.1 million, said Craig Foster, president of Webster Elementary’s PTA and member of the Superintendent Advisory Committee.

“We currently spend $1.4 million on staff across the district,” Foster said. “In order to raise all boats to the level of the highest spending school, we need to raise $3.7 million over and above what the PTAs are spending now.”

Lyon is confident that the money will cover the programs that meet the district’s needs.

“I’m comfortable with it,” Lyon said. “Part of the paradigm shift for folks is that exactly what has been paid for in the past may look a little different.”

The next question is whether or not parents will feel inspired to give.

“They need to be able to demonstrate to parents that the programs that will be in schools after districtwide fundraising kicks in are substantially the same or better than what was there before across every school in the district,” Foster said. “If they can do that, they’ll get parents’ support.”

In the meantime, Gross is excited to get the project rolling.

“For years we have all been 17 different silos,” she said, referencing the foundation and the 16 district schools. “Why I’m really excited is this is a real opportunity to change the culture and start to collaborate with each other.”

The Education Foundation will launch its “Dollar a Day” campaign by the end of the month.

This article originally appeared in the Santa Monica Daily Press.