Fundraising Fatigue

Who ever said public schools are free?

People ask me all the time if Mercer Island is very different from Connecticut. In a word, well, yes. Very. And here’s one thing in particular that stands out: here we are asked and expected to give substantially to.

I completely understand the ask when it comes from an independent school, which doesn’t have government funding, but I was taken aback when school started up in September and the PTA immediately asked us to donate $360 per child.  I didn’t mind, and was happy to do it. And compared to a private school, that’s a door-busting steal. But I’ve never heard of a school system where this is done. What if, I wondered, you really can’t afford it? And why don’t our taxes cover the costs of educating Mercer Island students?

In our last public school, any and all types of requests for money were heavily regulated. Room parents, for instance, could only gently suggest that each family donate $5 per teacher per event into the pot. We could not ask for more. We could not pester people who forgot to chip in. We definitely could not ask for upwards of $400.

Here on the island, a little fundraising arm-twisting has been known to happen. A friend of mine decided not to contribute the requested donation but paid her annual PTA dues. A PTA board member then returned my friend’s $20 check, explaining that they were sure my friend had forgotten to include her $360 contribution. Ouch.

I’ve witnessed some heated debate over the policy. One father I know was outraged that he was asked, given the amount of property tax he pays. And I’ve heard other homeowners complain that their taxes are footing the bill for the schools while renters’ kids are able to attend for free.

(For the record, as a renter, I’d like to point out that the apartment buildings do pay a substantial property tax to the city, and I’m certain that our monthly rent is what covers that. So renters are paying into the school system, just as homeowners are.) 

After we sent in our September check, I felt great about it. I had no idea, though, that it was just the beginning. The came along not too many weeks later. Then there’s the this spring and Bridge the Gap a month after that. Of course we want to pull our weight, but I’m starting to get a moderate case of Fundraising Fatigue.

Then again, we love our school, and our daughter’s teacher. She’s one of those rare educators who -- as my son likes to say -- really loves her job teaching kids. The quality of our teachers and curriculum is on par with most private schools -- which can cost upwards of $20,000. Maybe all this badgering for donations is exactly why these Mercer Island schools are so impressive and effective. 

So, where do I send my next check?

Polly March 15, 2011 at 02:36 PM
I live on "the Rock" and was grateful my son had so many opportunities offered in the MI "public" school system and yes, at a price. Extra class fees, sports, dances, and other incidental costs added up to thousands over the course of his High School years. It was worth it and....yes different than many school districts. It comes with the culture of island living, so to speak. Many residents chose MI for the education and shouldn't be surprised at the number of requests to "give" back in time and money.
Megan Hand March 15, 2011 at 02:46 PM
I am so glad you have joined our community! I enjoy your candid insight on our island. One question I wonder is how much percentage of tax funds in Connecticut go toward education? I know in New York they pay a lot more in property taxes than we do so my friends there are not asked to give to the extent we are. In my opinion, our state needs to do a much better job making education a priority. Although our Governor is feeling the pressure to make changes, we are still 48th in the country in per pupil spending. Which seems so crazy considering the educated workforce who reside here. Our state has a long way to go to provide our kids with the education they deserve, but in the meantime it is the generosity of our community that make education great for our children.
Ken Glass March 15, 2011 at 02:57 PM
There is also the fundamental funding difference between Connecticut Schools and the formula here -- which stresses equity and effectively puts limits on how much school districts are allowed to ask citizens for funding via voting. So, in Connecticut, in 2006-2007, Connecticut schools spent an average of $12,979 per student from all sources. The same year, in Washington, the total expenditure was $8,377 -- that is 54% LESS than Connecticut. (Source - the US Census page 8 from http://1.usa.gov/hbEUPR). And, the system in Washington State is such that Mercer Island, after counting all sources of revenue -- which is limited for state/local funds and includes all private giving, like you mention above, still comes in the bottom half of all Washington State school districts. And the state allocated portion puts MISD in the bottom 10 in the state of over 290 districts. Source: http://bit.ly/gTiAXT (sortable Excel spreadsheet). The end result is the rush for money you see -- to try and keep the schools as good as they can be. The current year fiscal problems, suggest significant additional cuts are on the table. If you want to learn more, check out http://fundingwaschools.org/.
Jennifer McLellan March 15, 2011 at 03:24 PM
This willingness by our community to support our schools monetarily (and with time too- our schools are teeming with talented, dedicated volunteers!), is such a blessing! We saved 14 teachers last year with our Breakfast of Champions and other Bridge the Gap fundraisers. We have up-to-date curriculum and supplies (thank you Mercer Island Schools Foundation), we have amazing enrichment activities in our schools because of PTAs (art, reading, science, etc), a world class music department (thank you Fine Arts Showcase), etc, etc. My children are the most important parts of my life. Investing in them is a check I never begrudge. And to everyone who lives here who support our MISD schools- whether with money, time, or a 'yes' vote on bonds and levies, as a mom of those kids affected, THANK YOU!
Michelle Bowers March 15, 2011 at 04:29 PM
Thank you all for your comments. Ken: these numbers are fascinating. I had no idea per pupil expenditure here was so limited. I believe in our last school district the allocation was about $14,500 per student, which is fantastic. I always got the impression that the schools in CT really didn't even need more money. We barely did any fundraising at all. It's incredible that if MISD is in the bottom 10 out of 290 districts, the schools are able to maintain such a high quality. Do you know what the expenditure is per student here on the island? I really admire how this community has made education such a priority and taken the initiative itself to see to it.
Michelle Bowers March 15, 2011 at 04:33 PM
Hi Megan: thanks for the kind comments. I'm glad to be here, writing for Patch. So we're 48th in the country! That's terrible. I'm sure our state can do better. I'm thankful Mercer Island has done just that.
Ken Glass March 15, 2011 at 05:11 PM
Hi Michelle, In 2008-2009 the spending per student (again including all federal, state, local and private monies) was $9,945.01 -- that included $982/student from non-taxed local support.
Jackie Brown March 17, 2011 at 10:27 PM
Hi Michelle Welcome to Mercer Island and to our school! I appreciate you initiating this conversation and I can understand there is an element of sticker shock when you first enter the school system. I know I felt it when my current 4th grader entered kindergarten at Lakeridge. Now, as a member of the PTA and the Mercer Island Schools Foundation, I see the absolute necessity of increasing local support (beyond our school levies) if we wish to maintain the high quality of Mercer Island schools. That being said, it is a reality that not all families can afford to donate; to the extent your friend felt coerced to donate to the PTA, I am sure that was not the intent and on behalf of the board I apologize if the wrong message was sent. Regarding property taxes on Mercer Island (and particularly the idea that we pay so much in those taxes we should not be asked to give to the PTA or Foundation), it is worth noting that Mercer Island residents pay a relatively low tax rate, albeit on a fairly high tax base (i.e., property value). This is because local school levies authorize districts to collect a fixed dollar amount, not a fixed rate. To see how this works, in 2011 Mercer Island property owners will pay $2.52 in school taxes for every $1000 in assessed value; in Federal Way, the corresponding number is $5.36. That means the owner of a $750,000 house on Mercer Island pays less in school taxes than someone with a $375,000 house in Federal Way.
Cliff Sharples March 17, 2011 at 10:36 PM
Mercer Island has always prided itself on exceptional schools for our children... it's why most of us live here. Even in a State that is almost dead last in terms of spending per child for education, we have managed to create one of the best school districts in the Country. But among the top 5% of students in the United States, we're still lagging behind more than 20 industrialized countries. We need to push for our State to make fundamental changes in how it prioritizes and funds education. But we also need to continue to come together as a community and support the exceptional school system that serves as the central pillar of our community. If residents, parents, businesses, and organizations can all come together to not just raise money, but also celebrate and support our schools with our time and focus, we can achieve our collective 2020 Vision for Education on the Island. That vision focuses on teaching our students to think, collaborate and be creative and effective in the interconnected world. We’re keeping our standards high while connecting with students through a more personalized style of learning. So, please join me in supporting our schools and Island community by donating to the Bridge the Gap campaign.
Lori Langston March 18, 2011 at 01:58 AM
For more information about the district's budget in light of cuts from Olympia, please see the budget update newsletter on the district's website: http://www.misd.k12.wa.us/departments/business/budget/10-11/Budget%20Update%20newsletter3-2011.pdf Also, please know that most school districts throughout King County (Bellevue, Lake Washington, Issaquah, etc.) also have foundations dedicated to raise money for their schools.
Mike Cero March 25, 2011 at 05:35 PM
Ken, Nice talking with you at QFC and thanks for directing me to this thread. I'm not sure why I missed it but better late than never with my two cents. Not a big deal, but there's a newer census report. The numbers are probably about same: http://db.tt/QNpjHrz. Instead of Table 8/Page 8, I have always referenced Table 11/Page 11. Table 8 Per Pupil Amounts for Current Spending (WA $9,099) vs Table 11 Per Pupil System Finance Amounts ($10,786). Looks like the difference is that Table 8 doesn't include capital expenses. Regardless, WA's $10,786 is still significantly short of CT's $16,600. (continued on next post)
Mike Cero March 25, 2011 at 05:35 PM
I commend you in pointing out the upside or benefit in our State's school financing mode: equity. This is a noble objective but has some unfortunate consequences. In general, the Doren decision drives our budgeting model as it addresses the State's inequity between districts. The State addresses inequity by capping local levy rates and transferring more reliance on state funding instead of local funding. I think the unfortunate consequence of this model is that Washington is 33rd in total spending. Table 11 identifies our three sources: Federal, State and Local. In that federal funds are distributed by poverty level, we are fortunate to be 35th and shouldn't put further thought in this source. I'll keep our state's relative wealth for a low federal standing. Interestingly, from monitoring all the wrath we direct toward Olympia's failure to finance education, they don't have as bad as a rank as I expected when I first got into this report. WA has the 12th highest per pupil state funding in the Nation. (continued on next post)
Mike Cero March 25, 2011 at 05:35 PM
The State has very diverse views toward education. The diverse views are on display during state level PTA conventions. Education funding gets in the same line as the many other interests in Olympia. Again, the Doren decision forces a greater reliance on state funding. The result of this reliance is a crowding out of education funding by other interests, ie transportation, medical care, public safety, etc. And indeed, the diluted education message has resulted in education's percentage of the total state budget decreasing since Doren (hearsay but I've heard it enough to believe it). Unfortunately, the Doren decision caps the natural incentive to improve one's lot by limiting local funding. And indeed, this is what Table 11 documents. In aggregate, local WA districts rank 41 in the level they support schools. This low rank is understandable because I believe people are more apt to pay taxes when they see direct benefit. Not only are citizens more willing to pay more local taxes, but local taxes are more focused and have better accountability when localized. As my highlighted Table 11 shows, (http://db.tt/QNpjHrz ) 8 of the 10 top total financed schools are also in the top 10 of local financing. Your top financed schools likely are heavily dependent on local support. I've also heard from state level PTA authorities that there is a direct relationship between percentage local funding and performance. (continued on next post)
Mike Cero March 25, 2011 at 05:36 PM
I'll argue that WA's model actually disincentivises local (& state) funding. We expect our funding needs to be fulfilled by Olympia instead of the local community. Enthusiasm for state taxes that filter down to district is not as great as the enthusiasm for local taxes that stay local. Additionally, I think the state's equalization re-distribution has some negative consequences. I'm sure there are districts who fail local bonds and levies because the bond/levy would put them over the threshold to receive equalization monies. Why approve a $100 tax if I lose $80 in equalization funding? Finally, refer back to education's declining percentage of the state's total budget. This hits MI-type communities twice because local funding limits are a percentage of state and federal funds. As state funds decrease, local funding decreases proportionally. I think the long term solution to WA State's education funding issue is addressing the many unintended consequences of taking local funding authority away and re-distributing those taxes. A medium term solution for Mercer Island is to make permanent the recent 2% addition to our levy cap. And finally the ultimate purpose of this letter: anyone reading this who is interested in helping to contribute to the immediate MI solution, sign up on my table for Bridge the Gap, I'm about two short: http://www.mercerislandschoolsfoundation.com/breakfast. Mike.
Michelle Bowers March 27, 2011 at 09:03 PM
Wow, Mike, I had no idea you were such a wealth of information on this topic. I should have come to you for background info. Count me in for your table. thanks for your comments!


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