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For Ramón González, principal of the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology (M.S.223) in the South Bronx, excellence is a hustle: "Food, childcare, giving out things, trying to have activities that keep them engaged" is how González says he gets about 20 to 30 parents to come out to the average Parents' Association meeting. With a lot on their plates, including notoriously poor health in the area, he says, he needs to entice them.
The parents' association at his school raised between $3,000 and $4,000 last year, which was used toward graduation, prom, and school dances. Parents chip in for the drinks and flowers, and the school provides a DJ. The rest is in his hands.
"We don't have silent auctions and all those things. That's just not our population," González says.
It's a very different story at the William Penn School (P.S.321), located in pricey Park Slope, Brooklyn. Its Parent-Teacher Association brings in approximately $500,000 in annual revenue, according to PTA Co-President Jill Mont. Its biggest fundraisers, a spring dance and an auction, collected between $75,000 and $80,000 apiece last year, and an annual appeal rakes in about $100,000—combining for about 60 times M.S.223's annual PA budget.
"Somebody might donate a weekend house in the Poconos, and that might be a $500 bid," Mont says.
In the midst of a widening school budget crisis—the Department of Education (DOE) projects 8,500 teacher layoffs this year if state cuts go through, and the city only avoided 14,000 more last year thanks to federal stimulus dollars, which expire next year—parent fundraising is increasingly helping to fill the gap. At schools across the city, parent dollars are used to help schools meet state arts mandates and provide necessary classroom supplies and personnel.
Nobody knows exactly how much money PAs pour in to city schools. PAs must file financial statements with their schools and district offices, but the DOE does not track PA spending citywide or even by district, according to District 10's Community Education Council President Marvin Shelton, who says the information was provided to him by the DOE's Office for Family Engagement and Advocacy. (The DOE would not comment for this story.)
One thing, however, is clear. While some parent groups have the muscle to carry a piece of the city's burden, others barely make a dent—contributing to a distinctive "separate but equal" education system within the five boroughs.
"There is, in fact, a large difference in the ability of parents' groups in different schools to raise money, and that has a profound effect on what the schools are able to offer," says Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children, a nonprofit that supports the rights of New York City students, especially students of color and those from low-income backgrounds.
Take the Upper East Side's Lillie Devereaux Blake School (P.S.6). There, only 6 percent of students come from families with low enough incomes to qualify for free lunch, and more than 70 percent of students are white. The P.S.6 PA's 2007 tax filings show it finished with $775,486 in revenue that year, and used the vast majority to cover "teaching expenses, etc., not provided for in Board of Education Budget." (According to a September 2, 2009, agreement between the United Federation of Teachers and the DOE, schools can hire what are called Parent Association Teacher Aides as temporary employees so long as they do not "replace, substitute for, or supplant in any way any UFT-represented employee.") Similarly, parents at P.S.41 on West 11th Street claimed $503,794 in total revenue in 2007 and contributed more than half of it to what it called "teachers, supervision, and additional information for students that is not ordinarily provided via curriculum."
The Bronx New School (P.S.51) on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, where 34 percent of students are black and 53 percent Hispanic—and 57 percent qualify for free lunch—couldn't compete. There, despite an active parents' association, the group's approximately $5,000 in revenue last year didn't pay a single salary.
"PAs and PTAs can't hire teachers, and we can't build buildings," notes Mont. But PA money can be used to hire other staff or purchase supplies—freeing up a school's regular budget for other purposes. When New York State Supreme Court Judge Carol Edmead briefly granted a temporary restraining order last October delaying more than 500 school aides from being laid off citywide, she cited the fact that the Mosaic Preparatory Academy (P.S.375) in East Harlem, where almost 90 percent of students were at or below the poverty line, was set to lose all its school aides, while P.S.6 on Madison Avenue had hired 17 teacher aides (all made possible by PA money, according to Zita Allen, communications director for DC 37, the union that represents teacher aides).
Arts programs are another frequent target of parent fundraising. Ever since 2007, when Mayor Bloomberg took the annual $65 per student Project Arts budget line created by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and folded it into overall school budgets, principals have been left to decide for themselves how much to spend on the arts. Fewer resources, coupled with the city's increased focus on English, math, and science instruction in its school progress reports, means art is often forsaken, says Richard Kessler, who works with PAs to bring art into schools as the executive director of the Center for Arts Education.