Rich schools/poor schools: Activity funds show growing divide among Fayette County schools

During a 2012 presentation to Rosa Parks Elementary students, Ronald McDonald told the Girl Scouts to give themselves a pat on the back after they demonstrated items that could be donated to the Ronald McDonald House. Ronald spoke to students about giving back to the community as the kids kicked off a fund-raising drive for the Ronald McDonald House.  Photo by David Perry | Staff
During a 2012 presentation to Rosa Parks Elementary students, Ronald McDonald told the Girl Scouts to give themselves a pat on the back after they demonstrated items that could be donated to the Ronald McDonald House. Ronald spoke to students about giving back to the community as the kids kicked off a fund-raising drive for the Ronald McDonald House. Photo by David Perry | Staff HERALD-LEADER

There's an economic divide among schools in Fayette County — and one of the most glaring examples is fundraising by parents and students.

The amount of money raised for trips, athletics and extra academic supplies varies widely — from Rosa Parks Elementary, which anticipates $445,700 in revenues in 2014-2015, to Harrison Elementary, which is forecasting revenues of $21,335.

[Related story: Parents sign petition supporting neighborhood schools as primary factor in Fayette redistricting]

In the tentative budgets for school activity funds, which were approved by the Fayette County School Board last month, "you can see dramatic increases between schools based on the ability of parents to do fundraising," said Superintendent Tom Shelton. "We've become a society of the haves and have-nots, and that's not good for anybody."

School officials say the activity funds highlight the economic divide in Fayette County schools, some of which have concentrations of wealthy students or poor students. That divide is under increased scrutiny as the district prepares to redraw attendance zones in a process that could balance out some of those differences.

District officials have decided that a primary goal of the redistricting process is achieving socioeconomic balance.

But some parents are balking. They want their children to go to the school nearest their homes, even if it means that schools are not diverse.

Rosa Parks, where 8.3 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch, had $535,666 in revenues in its school activity fund in 2013. The elementary school sits near half-million dollar homes in the Harrodsburg Road area.

This past year, Rosa Parks made about $27,000 on one 5K-run fundraiser, more than Harrison Elementary's anticipated revenues for all of 2014-15. At Harrison, where some surrounding homes sell for $60,000 to $80,000, 97.6 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch.

Among middle schools, the anticipated revenue at Beaumont Middle School — $353,805 — is about five times that of Crawford Middle School, which anticipates revenues of $68,425.Beaumont has 33.1 percent of students receiving free and reduced-price lunch, compared to 82.1 percent at Crawford.

Bryan Station High School, with 66 percent of students receiving free and reduced lunches, expects revenue of $375,884 in 2014-15, while Paul Laurence Dunbar, at 38.2 percent, anticipates receiving $949,107.

Bryan Station High School parent James Brown, a member of the site-based decision-making council, said his concern for students is that they wouldn't have as many field trips or enrichment activities if the student activity fund is lower than at other schools.

Board member Doug Barnett, whose district includes schools with lower activity funds, including Bryan Station and Harrison, said the district needs to provide more supplemental funding to equalize the disparity.

"It just hampers what services the schools can actually provide the kids. I think it hampers student achievement and student engagement, " Barnett said. "I would be a strong advocate for doing more."

At some elementary schools, fifth-graders take a multiple-day bus trip to Washington, D.C., to stay in a hotel, see landmarks and visit museums, but Harrison Principal Tammie Franks said she thinks her school has greater needs, so she won't attempt that trip.

"There are several schools in the district that get to take their fifth-graders to Washington. We will never be able to do that as far as us raising funds," she said.

Franks said parents at her school are "amazing" and willing to help in any way. But she said many families are unemployed or underemployed and aren't able to raise money at high levels.

The equity issue is caused by "the poverty and the economics of the neighborhood that we are located in," she said.

Bryan Station High School parent Christin Helmuth said the vast differences make a good argument for more socioeconomically diverse schools.

Helmuth, a band parent, said that many students in schools with lower activity funds have to work after school or have obligations to their families that prevent them from fundraising.

"We don't have the kind of fundraising infrastructure to create the kind of money that it takes to be highly competitive versus some other bands in the same division with greater resources," she said.

Leveling the playing field

The activity funds are needed to make up for what is not provided by Fayette County Schools for trips, athletics and some academic supplies. The activity funds are separate from PTA finances, though PTA's have made donations to the funds. The funds typically do not include money from the school district or the state or federal government. Often, booster club money is not included.

In addition to fundraising by students and parents, student activity funds can include admission to athletic events, and concession stands.

School activity funds may be used to pay some custodial costs for cleanup after a game, ticket takers, a clock keeper at sporting events, game officials and judges.

The Fayette school board vote, which occurred with little discussion, was needed because a Kentucky Department of Education regulation requires local boards to approve school activity fund tentative budgets annually to make sure state accounting procedures are followed.

Outside audits for Fayette County activity funds for 2012-2013 — the last year available — did not point out any problems.

Guidelines for how schools can spend activity fund money are detailed on the Kentucky Department of Education website. For example, schools cannot use the money to pay a teacher's salary or to pay for a school's operating costs.

Under state law, school districts are allowed to equalize disparities in school activity funds by waiving fees for low-income students for things such as workbooks, certain field trips, uniforms and equipment, and special supplies. That means the school district spends $15 per student on those fees.

Shelton said the district has taken steps in its 2014-15 budget to level the playing field. When trying to the cut the budget recently, the school board nixed a proposal to cut $55,000 for field trips for students. The school board also has set aside $150,000 for an equity fund in its 2014-15 budget so that schools with a specific need can request money.

'We get by'

Principals at schools with lower activity funds say they do everything possible so that children don't notice that their school doesn't raise as much money as others.

Franks said "we get by" with "major community partners," including churches.

"I try to ask people for things that are absolute necessities," she said.

At Bryan Station, said principal Mike Henderson, "we just don't have the fundraising capacity as other schools have within our regular infrastructure. But I don't look at that as a barrier. I just do things to make sure that any activities that we do at this school, no child is denied those activities."

Bryan Station's Alumni Association and several businesses are generous, he said.

"If I see things that other schools are getting to do that my kids aren't getting to do, then I figure that one out," Henderson said.

Crawford Middle School, which has the fewest students among the district's middle schools, also has the lowest projected revenues.

"We don't want to fundraise our kids to death," said principal Mike Jones. "The funds that we do have, we use them wisely."

For example, Jones said, when the school activity fund is used to buy shirts for competitions, he makes sure that "our kids show up in good-looking quality shirts."

Rosa Parks principal Leslie Thomas said one of the reasons her school had such a high amount in its activity fund was that it included the revenues and costs of an after-school care program for which parents pay a fee.

"It looks like we have a lot of money in there, because extra programs are filtered through the activity fund," Thomas said.

But Thomas acknowledged "we have very involved parents," as well as support from businesses. Two companies owned by parents bought math journals costing $15,000 for students.

Thomas said she doesn't have to raise money for field trips because parents pay for them. She said she uses the activity fund for technology and to compensate for cuts in state funding.

"Schools like ours, we have to have that parent support," Thomas said. She said she gets no additional federal or state money because the school has fewer students who get free and reduced lunch.

"We have to run a higher activity budget in order to balance all of that out," she said.

At Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, principal Betsy Rains said she thinks that school's activity fund has been "right at a million dollars" because the school has several clubs and academic departments that raise money. Dunbar has a ping-pong club and an outdoor club that goes whitewater rafting, and "every year we have more offerings." Rains said the fund includes revenues from candy sales, a chili cook-off, and T-shirts for the senior class. Students raise so much money that "we don't do a lot of begging" from businesses, she said.

At Beaumont, which had the highest revenues among middle schools, "we have a very strong parent involvement program" that includes families of all incomes, said Kate McAnelly, the principal.

Clubs at Beaumont take turns sponsoring school dances, charging $3 per student, she said. The lacrosse team and the archery club bought equipment with their dance proceeds, she said.

Additionally, some parents pay not only for their children to take field trips, but recently "sent in twice the amount of money" for other students who otherwise could not afford to participate, McAnelly said.

White, Greer and Maggard Orthodontics is one company that makes substantial contributions to several schools each year. Dr. James "Greg" White said the company is devoted to the cause because a large number of their employees are parents.

"With the shrinking budgets of the public school system, it's becoming obvious that things are falling through the cracks," White said. "Critical things for helping parents and helping children learn just aren't there anymore due to a lack of funds."

The company typically spends six figures donating things like take-home folders and technology, and providing parties to motivate children.

White said he does not approach the schools; they usually come to the practice when they have a need.

"We have budgetary constraints so we can't do everything," he said. "We work with dozens of schools in multiple counties. We try not to reject any school that comes to us for help."

One pot for all schools?

School officials have been weighing options to remedy the inequities. Board chairman John Price noted that several years ago, PTA members considered one proposal that all fundraising money would go into one fund and be dispersed equally among schools. But he said parents only wanted to raise money for their own schools.

"You can't get people to work, unless they get benefit for their school," he said.

Shelton said it's possible that in 2015-2016, the district would address the inequity issue in the budget.

Tates Creek High School parent Liza Holland said she thinks one option is for schools that can raise money more easily to adopt schools that cannot.

"Unless we bus kids all over creation, which I don't think is a good idea, there is going to be some of this inequity that happens. I think we as a community ought to work together," she said.

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