RALEIGH — When Lacy Elementary School wanted more money for teaching positions - beyond what the state and county would provide - its private foundation picked up the tab of more than $100,000.
The nonprofit, which on average has raised more than $95,000 annually for the most recent five years on record, was created in 2001 after Lacy lost its magnet status in the mid-1990s, leading to the loss of six teaching positions.
About a dozen miles to the southeast in Garner, Creech Road Elementary has no equivalent foundation and is restarting its parent-teacher association after years of inaction, said Principal Cat Berry. Parents, neighbors, companies and churches are pitching in at the school, where three out of four children qualify for free and reduced-priced lunches.
Creech supporters gave $12,378 last year, opting to fund the basics: backpacks, books for the media center and balls for the playground. Parents also volunteered their time, and businesses kicked in, too.
Wake County schools receive more than $21 million each year in private revenue, a News & Observer review of hundreds of tax returns filed by nonprofits shows. But the resulting money isn't distributed equally.
Some Wake County schools are blessed with parents who can contribute substantial amounts of money to enrich their children's education. Others in less-affluent areas cannot. At a time when the amount that schools spend on each child is dropping, some school leaders worry that students at some schools will suffer because parents there are less able to give.
"It is an equity issue that is hard to address because it's private money," said school board member Keith Sutton.
The $21 million is a relatively small number when compared to the school system's $1.2 billion budget. But many parents, principals and PTA leaders are keenly aware that some schools get a much larger slice of donated money. And a 2007 audit criticized uneven levels of resources arising from independent bodies funding Wake's schools.
The disparities could get larger under a new assignment plan, which is being designed to allow students to attend school closer to their homes. That means schools' assets will more likely mirror the economic health of their neighborhoods.
While few would criticize parents, companies or nonprofits for helping individual schools, some elected officials and community leaders are asking questions about the disparate resources. The questions come as school officials work to close the achievement gap between high- and low-income students while using an assignment plan based on choice.
The school system, meanwhile, is spending millions in federal, state and local dollars - while exploring ways to raise more private donations - to make sure all schools offer the same opportunities to learn and excel.
"I appreciate all the efforts of parents that contribute," Superintendent Tony Tata said. "Some contribute and some can't, and some do it in different ways."
Tata says the new student-assignment policy won't trap students in schools in low-income areas. Instead, parents will have the choice to send their child close to home or to a high-achieving school, perhaps in a higher-income neighborhood, he says.
Donations and location
Under the school system's former policy, people at different levels of income were spread across the county. The goal was to prevent economic imbalance - and disparate opportunities - throughout the system. Even with that goal, many schools have high levels of low-income students because the plan used to balance enrollments didn't meet its goals during periods of high growth.
This policy, though, placed more affluent students in magnet schools located in low-income areas. And it had an impact on private donations.
For instance, Enloe High School has one of the county's highest levels of private support even though it's located in the school district with the lowest median household income. As a magnet school, it draws students from all over the county.
The school board eliminated the socioeconomic focus last year after many parents complained about long bus trips and frequent changes in where their children were sent to school. Although it's still being fleshed out, the new policy will emphasize proximity and choice.
If students wind up attending schools closer to home, schools in higher-income neighborhoods in central and western Wake will likely end up with a higher percentage of students from well-off families. In the southern and eastern parts of the county, schools could have a higher percentage of poor students
The difference means some schools could send arts groups on expensive trips to out-of-state competitions, while others' excursions might involve a trip to a downtown Raleigh museum or state parks.
"You get a PTA with a $100,000 budget, you can get an award-winning author in there," said Vickie Adamson, president-elect of the Ligon Middle PTA and a former accountant.
Alumni boost coffers
Schools with long histories and thousands of alumni, such as Broughton High School and Lacy Elementary, are especially likely to have extra resources. Both schools have private foundations.
Parent-teacher associations - which often fund extras that the county budget doesn't - aren't allowed to pay for staffing.
Lacy's PTA typically raises more than $110,000 a year. That's in addition to funding from the foundation, which held about $140,000 at the end of the 2009-2010 tax year.
Broughton's endowment has exceeded $750,000. Its PTA, a separate entity, provided an average of $58,900 to the school annually for the most recent five years available.
The Broughton Capital Foundation was started in the 2004 at the encouragement of Richard Jenrette, a 1947 graduate and a founder of a successful Wall Street investment firm.
The foundation has given three-year awards of as much as $25,000 to outstanding teachers. In addition, physics teacher Dave Corsetti has earned full or partial funding of $7,000 to $10,000 annually from the foundation to license a sophisticated online homework and grading system that's more commonly used at the college level.
"That's always an advantage when they get to college; they will know all the little quirks of the system," said Corsetti, who said he's grateful for the support Broughton receives from the foundation. "People stand up and put their money where their mouth is and say, 'We are going to spend money on what we need.' "
The picture is different at Knightdale High School in the eastern part of Wake. Combined outside revenue at Knightdale came to about $274,000 in 2009, the most recent year available, compared with more than $900,000 at Broughton.
Knightdale Principal Carla Jernigan said she could find a use for extra money, but she's not going to interrupt her work to dwell on it.
"If we had more resources, more money, there would be more things that we would be able to do," Jernigan said. "I would not use money as an excuse for not meeting the needs of children."
Knightdale's athletic club is a major donor to the school. Members raised $89,000 by selling memberships and concessions to pay for equipment, travel, insurance, awards and scholarships for student athletes.
Marie McEvoy worries about the wide variation of outside support in Wake schools, even as she works hard to raise money for items such as lawn mowers, activity-bus transmissions and sports medicine as president of Jag Club Athletic Boosters at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh.
"I guess people just accept it, but of course it's really not fair," McEvoy said. "It seems almost like privatization, finding a way to get it done, someway, somehow."
Many donors prefer direct donations to paying more taxes because they can see for themselves where the money is going, she said. AndMcEvoy has been concerned that economically diverse Athens Drive, which draws students from Raleigh and Cary, could lose a number of dependable donors under a new student-assignment policy.
More for all schools?
Wake school leaders recognize the difficulties faced by schools in lower-income areas. For example, magnet schools, mostly in less-affluent areas, get additional staff and funding.
The school system also established four "Renaissance" elementary schools - including Creech Road Elementary - that are getting pay bonuses for principals, many new staffers and cash infusions of $50,000 apiece next year. That funding comes from $11 million in federal Race to the Top money, which North Carolina won in a national competition.
The system also gets about $30 million annually in federal Title I funding, meant to level the playing field for low-income students.
School board Vice Chairman John Tedesco has repeatedly raised the alarm about some schools getting more benefit from donated funds than others.
"As a district, we should be beginning to explore how to empower all of our schools," Tedesco said. "We want to make all schools high-demand schools."
But school board member Kevin Hill thinks differences in contributions and resources will likely continue.
"Parents will by and large support the schools that their children go to, as they are able to do so," Hill said. "If someone tried to put all the money in a big pot, they would quit giving."
Tata hopes to address inequities in part by creating an Office of Family and Public Engagement to handle requests made to the school system on how to donate time, equipment and services.
Also, as part of his reorganization of the central office, Tata moved the grants office under the new position of chief transformation officer to help recruit large donations.
"You've got to have a plan to reach out to the big financial donors in the world," Tata said.
Staff writer T. Keung Hui and researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.
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