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District Gift Policy Stirs Controversy

By Juliet McShannon
Staff Writer

Dec. 3 -- While a school in the city's affluent north side recently had water heaters for its fish tank donated by a well-known television actor, parents were scrambling to raise money for pencils at an elementary school in a poorer side of town.

These fundraising inequities -- exacerbated during tough economic times -- are the target of a controversial "gift policy" Supt. John Deasy expects to present to the school board next month.

Under the proposed policy -- met with mixed reactions by the district's PTAs -- 15 percent of all cash gifts, as well as 15 percent of the cash value of non-monetary gifts, donated to individual schools will be put into an Equity Fund to be distributed to all district schools.

"It is critical that we remain vigilant about all students gaining access to the best opportunities in education," Deasy said. "We have an opportunity to help make the learning ground level for our youth."

Contributions to the Equity Fund would be distributed annually in the form of block grants, with the amount received by each school determined using a weighted formula. The formula considers factors such as enrolment figures, number of students participating in different school programs and those attending Special Day Classes.

"The purpose of the Equity Fund grants will be to improve the enrichment of ALL students while simultaneously closing the achievement gap and mitigate the effects of the unequalized enrichment of schools," according to district officials.

But PTA members at various district schools are divided over the proposal. Opponents argue that the policy forced on schools is unfair and that there is no guarantee the percentage set aside for the district won't be raised in the future.

"Our taxes should be how wealth is distributed," said Sandy Thacker, PTA president at Webster Elementary in Malibu. "The bottom line is that many parents are opposed to the philosophy of the district being entitled to private funds."

Much of the parents' negative reaction, Thacker said, comes from being pressured into the policy. "Most parents don't like being mandated to," she said. "Instead, there should be a focus on a voluntary and collaborative effort."

One way in which this could be done would be through a direct donation drive, with a percentage of funds raised put into "the pot," she said.

Another major concern, Thacker said, is the possibility that the 15 percent set aside for the district will be just a starting point. "It could rise to 30 or 40 percent," she said. "There is no guarantee."

Yet not all parents of students in affluent areas oppose the policy. Leslie Wizan, PTA president at Franklin Elementary on Montana Avenue, believes the policy is a "good thing" and that everyone in the community needs to help each other.

However, Wizan believes the policy needs refining, with greater incentives added to encourage more private donations.

"We need a sliding-scale system, whereby the more money a school raises, the less (percentage) they would have to contribute into the fund," Wizan said. "Maybe 15 percent for the first $100 000, and then 12 percent for the next $100 000, on an annual calculation."

Wizan believes that parents of children in elementary schools have a harder time seeing the bigger picture because their children have not yet been through the system.

"As children get to the middle schools, they expand their peer group to children from other schools," Wizan said. "It can only benefit the children and their parents to have a level playing field."

Deasy agrees. "All elementary students will eventually go on to become consumers of Middle Schools," he said. "It is my goal that all students, at all grades, at all district schools, have a good quality of education."

Laura Rosenthal, vice-president of the district's PTA Council, believes that the proposal should be supported.

"Individuals need to look beyond their own school to every child," Rosenthal said. "Unfortunately it is human nature that we like to have control, and the parents that I have spoken to have expressed concern that they won't be able to control where their donations go.

"The greatest problem is a fear of change," she added. "Yet, we are only talking about 15 percent of a donation. Eighty-five percent will stay at every school site. I have to believe that through parental education the benefits of the proposal will be obvious, and parents will eventually donate even more than before."

A major bone of contention is how the 15 percent contribution from non-cash donations, such as the fish tank water heaters, will be realized.

"It is not often that schools receive non-cash donations," Deasy said. "In the event that an organization or individual does donate non-cash items in a substantial amount, we may have to ask the donor to give an added cash amount to the value of the items donated."

The fund will be administered by an external organization chosen by the Board. And that also raises concerns among some PTA representatives who fear that a possible Management Fee will deter donors from giving.

Deasy feels the fear is unfounded. He is confident that an organization will be willing to administer the fund for free.

"This aspect of the fund is perhaps the least problematic," Deasy said. "The policy will most probably undergo several changes before it is adopted, which may be as late as next March, and the community will have a chance to voice their concern before any action is taken."
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