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Santa Rosa’s Schools Plus nonprofit rethinking fundraising approach

School Plus founders John Bribiescas (left) and Diane Keegan (right) with Schools Plus past board president Jill Peterson (center) at the 5th Annual A Night Under the Lights gala held at the Friedman Event Center in Santa Rosa. October 25, 2015. (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

JEREMY HAY , THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A longtime nonprofit supporter of Santa Rosa schools will pull the plug on its main fundraiser, and hopes to find new support and energy from elsewhere in the community.

“We need to go in a different direction; we need to evolve into something different,” said John Bribiescas, chairman of the Schools Plus board of directors.

The organization — which has funded arts, music and athletic programs in Santa Rosa secondary schools for 25 years — intends to give $230,000 to schools this year, the same amount as it distributed last year, he said.

High schools get $22,000 each; middle schools and Ridgway High get $12,000 each.

But the group’s most recent Night Under the Lights event, which was held in September, will be its last. A new fundraising event is to be announced later this year, Bribiescas said.

“We’re looking for help from the community,” he said. “We’re looking for ideas. We’re at a crossroads — how to be able to continue to fund these programs at the same level as we have?”

Over 25 years, Schools Plus has given $8 million to Santa Rosa schools, Bribiescas said. Last year’s allocations included funds to help Hilliard Comstock Middle School and Piner High School restart their dormant music programs.

“They have certainly helped us keep our programs alive — arts, music and after-school athletics,” said Laura Hendrickson, Comstock’s principal.

At Rincon Valley Middle School, the Schools Plus contributions have gone to team uniforms and musical instruments among other things, said Principal Matt Marshall. “We’ve often been able to buy the big ticket items that our school budgets don’t allow for. It’s been a lifesaver to keep the arts and athletics alive,” he said.

But the annual fundraising event has outstripped the all-volunteer group’s capacity, Bribiescas said, especially in a time when such nonprofit benefits occur on what can seem to be practically a weekly basis.

“It’s gotten to be too competitive, too difficult,” he said. “We’re evolving in a different direction and we need the community’s help.”

The organization has gone through upheaval before. In the mid-2000s, it had to discontinue its long-running telethon and at one point was down to $7,000 in its bank account.

It came back from that period stronger, eventually, after a school funding crisis led the district to consider eliminating high school sports altogether.

Alarmed Schools Plus members regrouped, and what Bribiescas calls “the second generation Schools Plus” emerged with a larger board and new fundraiser, Night Under the Lights. Since that point, the group has given about $800,000 to the district’s schools.

Now the organization is also trying to again recharge its board, Bribiescas said.

“We need more board members, to get things done, to network, and also we have attrition,” he said. The newest recruit to the board, he said, is Socorro Shiels, the outgoing superintendent of Santa Rosa City Schools district.

Staff Writer Jeremy Hay blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach him at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jeremyhay