Donation inequality felt among Santa Rosa schools
Brook Hill Elementary School in Santa Rosa reported $176 in donations from June 2013 to June 2014.
Exactly 635 yards to the north, Santa Rosa French-American Charter School, which operates in the same school district as Brook Hill, reported $61,110 in donations during the same period. Per pupil, Brook Hill students received 34 cents in donated funds and equipment while SRFACS students received $184.
Donors, including parents, grandparents, businesses and nonprofit organizations, stepped into the breach during California’s most recent budget crisis, giving money to offset staggering cuts to school programs. But, as an analysis of one year’s worth of donations made to Sonoma County’s largest school district shows, giving is not equal across the district and in almost all cases, it falls in line with established income disparities between schools.
What is at stake is not just a lack of field trips or art docents. Children from low-income families often start school already behind their peers who come from more affluent families, and without significant intervention, the achievement gap widens over time.
“It’s exacerbating an existing problem,” said Santa Rosa School Board trustee Laura Gonzalez.
“I think it’s a fundamental inequity,” she said “You could say, ‘Did they have the same classes?’ But all the extras do add up. That could be a lot of enrichment stuff for kids who lack that.”
Under a new state funding formula, those schools with a greater percentage of disadvantaged and poverty stricken students are slated to receive supplemental funds. And for years, federal Title 1 dollars have been directed to programs to help poorer students.
But officials said it remains unclear whether the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula will even the playing field. In the meantime, parents at some schools continue to donate - in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars toward technology, field trips and other programs. Meanwhile, students just a few miles away get pennies on the dollar.
A list of donations analyzed by The Press Democrat only includes those reported to the district office. In in many cases, it does not include giving by booster groups specific to programs such as athletics, agriculture or arts. But officials acknowledged that the patterns would remain largely the same, even with such donations included.
“If it’s perceived that a school over there has more services than a school over here, then we should look at balancing that,” said veteran trustee Frank Pugh.
But Pugh and others were careful not to criticize parents and boosters who have volunteered countless hours and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to support schools and programs.
“It’s a legitimate issue and one that begs the question of what do you do about it,” he said. “We don’t want to get in the way of parents raising money. Trouble is, right now we don’t really have a plan that addresses that.”
It is not a new issue and is not unique to Santa Rosa City Schools.
“The constitution requires some sense of equity, but it creates a baseline of equity,” said Valerie Cuevas, interim executive director of The Education Trust-West, an education advocacy group based on Oakland. “There is a floor, not a ceiling.”
“Parents can raise money to their hearts’ content and there is plenty of evidence that those enrichments are contributing to an opportunity gap,” she said. “There is a set of kids getting it and a set of kids that don’t.”
But the problem isn’t with parents being generous; it’s with a state funding system that has not yet fully attacked funding imbalances, she said.
“I don’t think any parent is ever the bad guy,” she said.
“From a historical basis, it has been a problem on and off for many years,” said Pugh, who was first elected in 1990.
In the past, caps on giving were put in place, but that prompted push-back from parents intent on helping their child’s school.
And when budget times are tight, parents are asked to do even more.
Whether it’s Project Graduation, field trips or school supplies, parents are encouraged to chip in. But that too, has been complicated recently.
Under a new state law that went into effect in 2013, public schools cannot demand supplies or charge fees for most equipment and activities. Under the new rules, a parent of a student in band can give a donation to fund a performance in Disneyland, but it cannot be earmarked for their student. If the grand total isn’t reached, the whole crew does not go.
Schools can also ask for per-pupil donations at the beginning of the year but cannot exclude any student from participating in educational activities based on their family’s donation.