Fundraising

In light of disparities, Minneapolis schools examine equity in parent, alumni fundraising

In the weeks before their schools were set to reopen, several North Side Minneapolis principals created Amazon wish lists, turning to crowdfunding efforts to fill their classrooms with supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bethune Elementary, for example, needed water bottles after drinking fountains were turned off to limit possible spread of the virus.

Bethune, like many north Minneapolis schools, lacks a formal Parent Teacher Association (PTA) that could cut a check for such items. Though donors stepped up to fulfill the schools’ wish lists, the situation prompted a question that several parents — and now the district leaders — are seeking to answer: Is the current system of parent and alumni fundraising equitable?

The school board earlier this month approved an Equity and Diversity Impact Assessment to look at the district’s policies on school fundraising. A committee will offer recommendations and an action plan is expected by October.

“The impact of how schools get resources keeps coming up and we need to look at what’s going on and how we can ensure it’s equitable across our district,” board Chair Kim Ellison said.

Part of the committee’s initial task will be to untangle the complicated web of parent and alumni groups in Minneapolis. A handful of schools, concentrated mostly in southwest Minneapolis, have official foundations with their own bylaws. Some of those groups bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.

Meanwhile, other schools have only small PTAs that distribute less than $10,000 per year. (PTAs differ from Parent Teacher Organizations in that dues are paid and the groups are affiliated with the national organization. PTOs are local and independent.)

Schools can also take private donations through funds with Achieve Minneapolis, the district’s nonprofit partner. A hodgepodge of other booster clubs and parent groups, both formal and informal, sometimes raise money through GoFundMe or Venmo.

One potential suggestion toward equity is a districtwide donation fund in which a committee would distribute money for schools’ needs, though Ellison said she’s talked to parents who don’t want to forgo the opportunity to give directly to their child’s school.

“We need to look at the health of the whole district, but families are attached to their particular school and I get that,” Ellison said.

For the past couple of years, a small group of Minneapolis parents has led the discussion about a central, districtwide fund to distribute donations more evenly across the city. It’s a model that has been adopted by other districts around the country, including in Portland, Ore., and Palo Alto, Calif. But it’s also a shift that triggers a debate about the definition of equity and how that applies both within and between schools.

Sara Spafford Freeman, a mother of three children in Minneapolis Public Schools, has spent the past two years collecting information about disparities in school fundraising and presenting it to parent groups across the district. She jokes that she’s gotten the reputation of being the “Defund the PTA” lady.

“We have this quaint notion that PTAs are just hosting school carnivals and stuff like that,” she said. “But they are paying for field trips, curriculum, and important educational experiences that other schools don’t have access to.”

The Southwest Foundation, which supports Southwest High School, for example, uses some of its funds to bring in guest artists, pay for academic competition fees and support after-school tutoring. According to tax forms, the foundation has taken in between $162,000 and $426,000 each year since 2013. The foundation’s president, Adam Barrett, said the organization typically distributes about $100,000 each year, including money earmarked for scholarships. Teachers and administrators submit grant requests to the foundation. Those requests often top $250,000 and the foundation grants about $60,000 of them annually, Barrett said.

Southwest also has a separate parent and student association that raises money, though the group often simply requests funds from the foundation.

“The money that we raise is minimal in comparison to what the high school really needs to breed equity within its programming and within its achievement model for all students,” Barrett said.

He opposes the idea of reconfiguring parent fundraising groups under one central organization and said Achieve Minneapolis already serves each school in the district.

Barrett doesn’t have children at Southwest, but is an alum of the school. He said foundation organizers don’t pretend to know what’s best for the school and defer to teachers and administrators to direct where the dollars go. The additional money is needed, he said, to support the programs that reduce inequities within the high school.

“Individual schools have individual needs,” he said. “How could a central committee overseeing this money understand what is best for North High or South High?”

Several other schools, including South, Washburn and Roosevelt high schools, and Kenny Elementary, are also raising hundreds of thousands of dollars each year through their parent foundations.

Some school PTA groups, including those at Burroughs and Hale elementaries, have been examining their own membership ranks, bylaws and budget processes to be more mindful of inclusivity. For the Burroughs PTA, that resulted in a partnership with the school’s parent equity group to sponsor workshops on race, culture and ethnicity.

Lynne Crockett, a member of North High School’s Polar Parents group and a longtime advocate for North Side schools, is on the district’s committee to look at the inequities in school fundraising. She says she is cautiously optimistic about the study and changes that may come from it.

There’s been talk of making Polar Parents into a formal PTA, which would require the group to pay dues to the state and national PTA organizations, but also offer more structure for fundraising. Even so, Crockett said the challenge of raising money in north Minneapolis has to do with the bandwidth of parents who may have more pressing priorities surrounding their jobs, child care, housing and neighborhood safety.

Parents are passionate and willing to give money and time when they can, but “We’re all tired of asking for money,” Crockett said. “Especially when we’re asking for something basic that should already be in the budget.”

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440

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