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Parents Pass Hat To Combat Deficit In School Funding

Tuesday June 17, 2003

Faced with heavy teacher layoffs and cuts in sports and music programs, a series of parent-led fund-raising groups are asking the city’s heavily taxed residents to pour more money into the schools. 

“We’re going to go to the entire community,” said Zasa Swanson, co-founder of a new group called Berkeley Schools Now! which hopes to raise $500,000. “We figure there isn’t one person in this community who doesn’t feel compelled to save education, even if they don’t have children.” 

Berkeley homeowners already contribute about $14 million annually in special, voter-approved taxes that fund everything from maintenance to class size reduction. Local voters have also approved almost $275 million in bonds for various school construction projects since 1992. 

But parents and foundation officials say they are confident that the community, even in the midst of an economic downturn, will make large donations to save treasured education programs. 

“The people I talk to just want good schools,” said Trina Ostrander, executive director of the Berkeley Public Education Foundation, which raises more than $600,000 annually for the public schools. “If they have to rally, they rally.” 

Matt O’Grady, associate executive director for the San Francisco-based Management Center, which provides nonprofits with management advice, said advocates will likely face a divided public. 

“I think that, for the right audience, including parents of students who are in those schools, it would be a very compelling issue,” he said. “Others might say, ‘Well, I already pay taxes.’ And people in Berkeley might say, ‘It should be covered through tax dollars and not private philanthropy.’” 

The early returns have been mixed. A Berkeley High School concert featuring blues music and Afro-Haitian dance over Memorial Day weekend netted about $5,000 for the music program, falling well short of a goal of $10,000 to $20,000. 

“It wasn’t what we hoped for, but it certainly was a beginning,” said music advocate Karen McKie, who helped organize the event. 

Parents have now raised about $8,500 for the music program, according to organizer Bob Kridle, whose daughter will attend Berkeley High School next year. This summer, he said, parents hope to top $24,000 and restore a middle school band and orchestra program that has been chopped from five to two days per week.  

The music cuts are part of an $8 million package of reductions and fund transfers, approved by the Board of Education in February, that will eliminate 70 to 100 teaching positions next year, boost some class sizes and possibly eliminate freshman sports at Berkeley High. 

The cuts will go deeper next year when the board must chop an additional $3 million to balance the books, and $3 million more to meet a state requirement for a budget reserve. 

There is a precedent for successful, community-based fundraising. In 1994, advocates raised more than $300,000 to save the district’s fourth-grade music program—pulling in about $120,000 at a Grateful Dead benefit concert arranged by bassist Phil Lesh, who attended the Berkeley public schools. 

This year, parents are turning from tie-dyed T-shirts to tax receipts. Berkeley Schools Now! is asking Berkeley residents to contribute tax relief checks, of up to $400 per child, that the federal government will send in late July and early August to middle-income families with children under age 17. 

The money raised by the organization will not be targeted for any specific program. Instead, it will be distributed proportionately to each school based upon enrollment. Parents, teachers and administrators at each site will decide how to spend the cash. 

Meanwhile, members of the nonprofit Berkeley Athletic Fund are calling for a voluntary athletic fee next year. Under the proposal, parents of student athletes would have the option to contribute $75 or more annually to support Berkeley High School’s extensive sports program, which faces $127,500 in cuts next year. 

“There are concerns,” acknowledged Kathy Dervin, of the Athletic Fund. “Even if you do it voluntarily, does it put off people from participating in sports?” 

Parents and school officials said their biggest worry is that residents and businessmen may feel overwhelmed by appeals for money from multiple fund-raising groups. 

“To go out to the community and ask for dollars over a lot of different issues ... is probably not in our best interest,” said Superintendent Michele Lawrence. 

With that in mind, parents from Berkeley Schools Now!, music advocates, sports enthusiasts and others met June 10 to trade ideas and develop some sort of unified strategy. 

“People who were raising the money were starting to get worried that they would compete with each other,” said Ostrander, of the Berkeley Public Education Foundation, which participated in the meeting. 

Ostrander said the foundation, in its fall newsletter, will probably allow each group to make its case for donations, providing readers with an easy way to pick and choose. 

The foundation is also working out an agreement to serve as fiscal sponsor for Berkeley Schools Now! and the music advocates, allowing the foundation to accept checks on behalf of both groups. Other organizations, like the Berkeley Athletic Fund, are official nonprofits and do not need sponsorship. 

Lawrence said the Board of Education, scheduled to approve a final 2003-2004 budget Wednesday night, cannot restore programs at this point based on fundraising that may or may not materialize. But, she said, the district can make adjustments next year if parents collect heavy donations. 

Those interested in donating should call the Berkeley Public Education Foundation at 644-4865. Checks can be mailed to the Berkeley Public Education Foundation, 1835 Allston way, Berkeley, California 94703, with notations in the memo section if the money is to be allocated for any specific cause.