Million Dollar PTAs – It’s Not All About the Money

This past Sunday The New York Times published an article, Way Beyond Bakesales: The $1 Million Dollar PTA, and my Co-President and I were featured in front of the PS 87 mural.  We’ve been waiting to see how this article would shape up since we gave Kyle Spencer a tour of our school a few weeks ago.  It’s not an easy decision to talk to the press about our PA fundraising because it’s so easily taken out of context and on the surface it looks absurd.  Since Kyle herself is a public school parent at a fairly affluent public school, and the articles she’s written before on the subject seem fair enough, we figured we should show her our absurdly run down, crowded school and be able to explain how and why we use the money we raise as we do.  But, as with anything, it’s incredibly hard to really get a full picture from a brief article – especially one that is meant to attract as much buzz and comments as possible.  Luckily for me, I have my own platform to write about what really goes on and why we raise this money.

First, the issue that bothered every parent at PS 87 – we don’t raise $1.57 million dollars.  We raise about $700K.  An enormous number to be sure, but no where near $1.57 million.  That other $800K or so, that’s our after school program.  It’s pretty amazing, was started over 30 years ago by a group of PS 87 parents, and has about 450 students enrolled across the 5 days.  Parents pay for the classes just like they would any after school program and the program runs on those fees.  No fundraising, no profit.  But we report our income as one to the IRS.  Hence, the total reported on GuideStar.

Second, as I tell all reporters who call us about this issue, I really wish they would look at the official DOE budgets for the schools in question.  Believe it or not the budgets are fairly transparent.  (Though don’t even try to ask a DOE official to explain the budget – they can’t.) No reporter EVER does this!!! Click on over to the budget.  It’s fun!  It’s actually awful, but since my Co-President and I have spent the last 2 years pouring over it, it passes as a good time for us.  Let’s take that bottom number, heck, I’ll even round up to an even $6 Million.  Now let’s divide that by the number of kids in our school:  A super comfy 963.  What does that leave you? $6,230/student.  Take that Horace Mann!   Now, for extra credit go ahead and plug in another school – any school, maybe one that doesn’t raise the kind of money we raise, and see what their per student funding looks like.  Told you this was fun.  Almost as much fun as charting the budget cuts over the last 5 years.  25% but who’s counting.  (Oh yeah, that would be me)

Third – We pay the full price for every program we bring in.  That sounds perfectly normal right?  Well, no.  Many schools in the city and beyond qualify for arts, chess, music, wellness and other programs for free.  And they should.  These foundations raise money from outside sources so they can provide enrichment in our public schools where it’s desperately needed, especially since these are the first programs to go in budget cuts.  But, these programs charge schools like ours full price.  What does that mean?  If we want the Wellness In the Schools healthy lunch program we pay $25K for it.  If we want a coach at recess we pay $30K for it.  If we want chess we pay $30K for it (for only 2 grades, I should add.)  And we are happy to do it, because we can and because our parent body and school have decided it’s a priority.  But if we don’t raise the money we don’t get those programs.

What else wouldn’t we have?  Books, paper, cafeteria tables, most of our chairs and desks, text books, art supplies, substitute teachers (what a luxury), and an endless litany of other things that once upon a time were the responsibility of a government to provide in the name of public education.

So what is the real problem here?  As I’ve written before, raising this kind of money comes with all sorts of problems.  Does it let the city and state off the hook?  I hope not.  And that’s the other bone I have to pick – not with the article but with many of the comments.  If there’s one thing our parent body can’t be accused of it’s being politically apathetic.  Sometimes my Co-President is the ONLY one at all of those ridiculous meetings that the DOE holds at night, where they pretend to care what parents think.  And we are so in the face of the Chancellor, our elected officials, Albany, hell, we’ve even been to DC on more than one occasion, that one fine DOE official sent an email to someone high up I won’t name and told them to tell my Co-Prez to “back the fuck off.” Only he cc’d my Co-Prez by mistake.  OOPS!

The reason we raise so much money is not because people can write a check.  If it were that easy we’d have no fundraising committee and wouldn’t have hundreds of volunteers spending ridiculous amounts of energy and time planning, recruiting for and executing events all year long.  Parental engagement at this level is exhausting and most of our parents work full-time.  One of the most insulting aspects to the ignorant comments was this assumption that the vast majority of parents at our school can afford private school and expect the same experience at their public school.  How being able to make a donation of $1K or even $5K to a school is the same as affording $40K to a private school is beyond me.  But, aside from that – it’s absurd that parents wanting art, gym and text books is somehow akin to privilege.  Everyone should be outraged that this is a reality, not that parents expect this for their children.

I could go on.  And in person, trust me, I do.  But what I want in the end is for everyone to realize that issues like PTA fundraising are NOT the real issue when it comes to inequality in our schools.  Not by a long shot.  Start with the incredibly shameful lack of commitment to quality public early education and Pre-K – that is the big division that is the hardest to ever make up.  You would have thousands of kids entering Kindergarten ready and able to learn and start to recognize letters and numbers – imagine that.  And then take it from there – to the lack of teacher training, kids living in poverty, lack of healthcare, on and on.  Looking to a handful of PTAs to figure out a way to share their fundraising instead of asking Cuomo to pass the millionaire tax to fund our schools at adequate levels is absurd.  And what a gift this whole “debate” has been to those powers-that-be.  When is the New York Times going to do that story?  That’s the real million dollar question.

24 replies on “Million Dollar PTAs – It’s Not All About the Money”

  1. RIGHT ON. We are lucky to have you and all the volunteers at PS 87. It is hard work raising this money. But, of course, our kids are worth it. ALL kids are. The lack of funding (and misguidance of funds) for our public schools is a crying shame.

  2. I noticed that a lot of the comments on the New York Times article were actually in favor of the work that we do in PS 87. Although the article itself was slanted to get people riled up about the “Million Dollar PTA” (note the little bit at the end about Rebecca being surrounded by wisteria in the garden), one of the points that many commenters brought up was that with the enormous budget cuts that are being implemented, schools have to do what they can to bring in the money that has been lost.

    1. If the DOE would stop putting so many funds into the co-location and establishment of Charter Schools (which are the REAL public/private schools), and stop bashing the teacher’s unions, and
    2. If the Bloomberg administration would stop allowing developers to build new high-rises without making sure that new schools are built to seat all of the new children that come out of these new buildings and
    3. If they put these misguided funds into our existing public schools,

    we’d all be in much better shape.

    Sorry for the run-on sentences!

  3. Brava, Becca – as a future PS 87 parent (assuming my genius kids don’t test into Hunter), I am excited to be a parent at a school with such strong involvement.

  4. Great Response Rebecca, it’s so frustrating that people decide to focus on active parents that help pay for a good future for their children, not realizing that the public schools should receive funding for things like art, sports, activities and healthy lunches in the first place! People should be outraged by how thick these budget cuts have sliced, it’s like they forget that children are our future and should be fostered now for a better tomorrow.

  5. I’ve done public school fundraising in Chicago for six years and run into the same arguments, misunderstandings and deep-seated preconceptions. I love your response to the article (which was much emailed among parents here) and am going to steal many of your lines for my own use. Keep fighting the good fight.

  6. Still, you have to own it. PS 87’s PTA raised $700K (or $800K, according to the article). That’s a boatload of money, even per student, for a PTA to earn. This is related to the relative wealth of the parent body– I’m concluding the community’s wealth by the very low percentage of kids who qualify for free lunch, your point that you don’t qualify for Title I funds, and the fact that the school is on freakin’ West 78th street.
    I imagine that you’re responding to some of the more negative comments on the article– I especially enjoyed the one fellow who thought that donations to a PTA ought to be illegal. The pain (for me) is that many commenters want the system as a whole to get more equitable and to provide a quality education for all, and are willing to allow individual kids (or grades, or schools) to get screwed for a few years while we work that out– “why should they get a PE teacher when other schools do not?” When you’re a parent in a school, and it’s your kid in there, the long-term plans– well, they still matter, but they are augmented by immediate need.
    As a parent at another school elsewhere in District 3, I sympathize with your response, while I remain suspicious of your protests that $700K is really not that much. Sure wish my school had that problem.

    1. Oh, I own it. It takes 250 volunteers to create our auction, which is attended by 750 parents. It takes 200 volunteers to make our Street Fair happen and 150 to have our Harvest Fest in the fall. There are thousands and thousands of parent hours put into making our fund-raising events successful and I would never, ever take away from that. The NY Times article made it sound like everyone in our school is just writing a check, when in fact only 30% of our parents do that, and the majority of those are for under our ask of $600. We are a school of almost 1,000 kids. We raise about $700/kid. Yes, overall it’s a lot, but it doesn’t make up for the budget cuts of almost $1200/per kid over the last 4 years. And that is what we’re doing – just trying to fill the gaps left by a government that would rather spend money on new standardized tests and teacher evaluation systems rather than providing the resources for a quality education. Why isn’t anyone asking charter schools to give a % of the corporate dollars their board members donate to help the public schools that those charters are pushing out?

  7. This issue gets me so frustrated. While I understand your problem with sharing funds raised by parents, as long as richer districts have more money – wherever it comes from – other schools will be at a complete and total disadvantage. But I’m not suggesting sharing funds – just agreeing that the entire system is pathetically out of whack, if your public school can afford more things than mine can because your parents can give more money. I have no idea what the solution is, but yeah, funding the gap through parent donations ain’t it, and creating a debate about it takes heat off of the people who could possibly solve the problem.

    In other words, what you said.

  8. I was so happy to see the hard work and effort of you and your PA co-president shown in the article. Congrats!

    I was tempted to post a comment on the Times website in response to the comments the article was getting because the school my children attends was also featured but I didn’t because I feel like so many people get fired up about the topic that nothing I could say to explain would be heard.

  9. I love that you hit all the points I was screaming about when I read the article-most notably how the list of “perks” afforded by your PTA all seemed to be necessities at ANY public school. Desks? Computers in the classroom? A PE teacher? Healthy food? Since when did these become extras that PTAs should have to raise money for and be called selfish for doing so? The whole thing is maddening-as you well know. Thanks for continuing the fight.

  10. Rebecca ~ as always you have an inrcedible way with words. And thank you! For all you and Rachel do for the kids and the school.

  11. Excellent Becca! Thanks for taking this on and setting the record straight – someone needed to. It is very much appreciated.

  12. Rebecca – Excellent post and clarification. Thank you for all of your efforts.

  13. Thanks for writing such an excellent response, Rebecca. The article really bothered me, for many of the reasons you laid out above. I thought it was very shoddy reporting not to mention that our school has close to 1000 kids, certainly putting the money we raise in perspective. I’d like to see your blog post reposted everywhere this conversation is taking place on the web right now!

    1. Thanks Lisa! I have to say I thought Kyle Spencer did a fine job. It’s a totally loaded subject and of course that’s why they love reporting on it. But, yes, details were sorely lacking!

  14. Thanks for the clarifications. I was wondering about that figure and how the money is spent. Whatever the case, you and your colleague are doing an enormous amount of work for your school and I commend you for it.

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