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Last week two first graders at Meredith Elementary set up shop on a corner in Queen Village.
They’d heard the news of the “grim budget,” as they call it, and were upset at the prospect of no books next school year. So they decided to do their part to chip away at the deficit, one lemonade at a time. The girls set up a stand, called themselves the Meredith Girls Lemonade Club (MGLC), and raised $34.30, which they proudly delivered in a black satchel to school the next day.
Even over the phone, you can hear how Meredith principal Cindy Farlino feels heartened by the girls’ gesture. You can also detect a slight sense of hope in her voice. After all, she rang back twice to ensure we’d heard the story of the girls.
But Farlino, who heads up what some call the best elementary school in the city and also enjoys the benefits of one of the district’s most active and financially supportive parent associations, is also very worried. The “doomsday budget” that the School Reform Commission passed last week will fund her own job, and one teacher in every classroom. Nothing else.
“Who’s going to do payroll? Are we going to lock the office and not have anyone answer the phones? Are we going to have a teacher in the cafeteria and not outside watching kids at recess?” she asked. “I just don’t see how it’s going to work.”
The lemonade stand, a simple yet profound gesture, raised Farlino’s spirits. But it also raises troubling questions about fairness, and opportunity. Because it’s not just the students who will raise money for Meredith. Their parents are also prodigious fund-raisers — and have proven themselves more than willing to fund their school.
And while they’ve been working hard as a group to convince lawmakers at both the state and local level to do a better job of funding the whole district, when it comes right down to it, they’ll make sure they fund their own.
“I have no doubt the Meredith community and parents would put our creative resources together and come up with a way to make up the shortfall,” said Leslie Patterson-Tyler, co-president of the Meredith Home and School Association.
“I think you’re definitely going to see more difference between the haves and the have-nots,” she said.
Meredith parents have written letters to state politicians, hosted protests and showed up at City Council meetings, as have many other parents and parent organizations. But now, Patterson-Tyler thinks that energy would be better-spent putting heads together to generate creative sources of funding. It may boil down to simply asking parents to contribute what they can, maybe $100, maybe $500 per child, Patterson-Tyler said.
They’re not the only school that’s lucky enough to have a committed parent group with resources. Some HSA’s have already initiated fundraising campaigns around the budget cuts. The Masterman HSA, for instance, is soliciting donations on its website. At the time this article was published 10 percent of families had donated.
Every day, Patterson-Tyler said, fearful parents approach her in the schoolyard, imploring her about the school district’s $300 million budget shortfall. “’What can we do, Leslie,’ ‘What are we doing?’” Patterson-Tyler recalls them asking her. “I’m at a loss for words.” Some parents are talking about sending their kids to private school, she said.
But that’s a luxury that most parents with children in Philly’s public schools can’t even consider.
“Not everyone has the choice to be able to send their kids to private school,” said Nina Liou, president of the Bache-Martin Home and School Association. Liou has a first grader at Bache and her son will be a kindergartner there next year. According to the school district’s school profile site, nearly 91 percent of students at Bache-Martin Elementary are considered economically disadvantage — almost twice the percentage of similarly disadvantaged students at Meredith.
Bache-Martin’s HSA has actively reached out to the Fairmount, Spring Garden and Francisville communities for fundraising help. Recently three beauty shops in the area participated in ‘Beauty for Bache,’ by donating a portion of their proceeds for one month to the school. Just a few weeks ago, the Bache-Martin HSA, Fairmount Community Development Corporation and the Fairmount Civic Association collaborated for the first time to put on the ‘Finding Fairmount Scavenger Hunt’ event to support education in Fairmount.
And while it has raised about $30,000 for the school this year, that’s dwarfed by the $70,000 that parents have raised for Meredith.
Liou and Patterson-Tyler both said their respective HSA’s were waiting to meet with their school administrators before determining an exact plan of how to proceed for next year.
Fundraising is a primary function of the HSA’s. Essentially these fundraising efforts serve to round out the students’ education experience and their current curriculum. Traditionally, funds have gone toward supplemental programs in classrooms, additional textbooks and small capital improvements.
HSA’S, and any other organization for that matter, are also allowed to raise money to hire more teachers, or other school staffers, according to school district spokesman Fernando Gallard. But in that case, the organizations have to provide that money as a grant to the school district, and any amount over $5,000 must be approved through an SRC resolution. Gallard said it is the principal at the school that is set to receive the grant who outlines the qualifications for the position. But then there is the question of union rules surrounding school district teachers.
Patterson-Tyler said that in the past, the Meredith HSA has paid for noontime aids in the school. And while a handful of HSA’s may look toward fundraising for staffing given the pending budget cuts, the reality is that most don’t have this option financially available to them.
Greenfield School parent Christine Carlson, who is also founder of the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition, said she thinks the idea of parents funding staff positions is troubling.
“We don’t feel as parents and as a fundraising organization that we should be paying for teachers,” she said. “I don’t see how you can fundraise to fill the gaps because it’s not sustainable. Even in the wealthiest areas, its really beyond the scope of what parents can do and also what they should do.”
Her group’s mission is to gain support from the business community for the 11 elementary schools that are located in Center City, from Girard Avenue down to Tasker Street. The Center City District has set up an educational improvement organization (EIO) for the schools, which enables them to get funding from the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program. Liou said the Bache-Martin HSA is also exploring this option.
With the deep cuts that schools may very well be looking at next year, it seems likely that these grassroots-type fundraising efforts will only become more common. And partnerships between businesses, civic organizations and community members with a stake or interest in public education are obviously a good thing.
But what about the communities that don’t happen to have the kind of businesses and residents who can put up big dollars?
Patterson-Tyler, whose daughters attend Meredith and Masterman, acknowledges that she is not as worried about her own children’s schools as she is about those that aren’t located in communities with similar resources.
“When Meredith and Masterman catch a cold, other schools catch the flu,” she said.