Class Warfare

As they battle for bigger budgets, Colorado educators get a crash course in fundraising.

The message of self-sufficiency has filtered down through the district. Recently two District 11 elementary schools enticed MCI, which has a large office complex in Colorado Springs, to use their classrooms as demonstration projects. The company supplies the schools with its latest computers. In exchange, the schools serve as a living, breathing pitch for MCI's sales force. This year, notes Cooper, MCI assigned a full-time employee to the schools.

Other school principals have made do with what they can. Two years ago Colorado Springs's Wasson High School went to a block schedule, modeled after Colorado College. Rather than the traditional change-subjects-at-the-bell model, Wasson students study a single subject for several weeks and then move on to another subject. The program has proved popular, and school administrators across the country have contacted Wasson to learn more.

What to do if you want to be an entrepreneurial administrator in an entrepreneurial district? This year Wasson began charging fees for its time and experience, in effect turning its employees into paid educational consultants. Over the next few months a team of Wasson teachers and administrators will fly to Hawaii and Connecticut to give talks on block scheduling. The money they earn will flow back into Wasson to benefit the high school students there.

The competition for cash can cause friction, pitting school against school or school against district. Last year, as administrators sought to nail down either Pepsi or Coke as the sponsor of a new sports stadium in Jefferson County, negotiations bogged down. The reason: individual principals, particularly in the district's high schools, had already been cutting "exclusive" vending machine deals of their own, playing the soft-drink manufacturers against each other in an effort to raise money for their particular schools.

Many of the principals' deals had to be scuttled. "The district had to put the kibosh on that," recalls Cheri Lyons, who works to secure grants and other alternative funding for Jefferson County.

That didn't solve the basic problem, though. The most recent area of contention, Lyons says, is before- and after-school daycare centers, a growing source of extra cash for individual schools. For years private day-care providers have griped about the trend, with companies such as Children's World complaining that public schools were eating into their business.

Now principals are squabbling, complaining that it hurts their business when a nearby school opens a before-and-after center. "There's not much guidance from the district, so things are kind of going crazy out there," Lyons says.

One of the most popular ways schools raise money is through coupon books. Students usually hawk the books--which have ski and fast-food discounts--for $10, of which their individual school gets to keep $7. Some schools are successful with coupon-book sales. Others aren't.

Last fall, when the district's coupon campaign began, Lakewood High School decided not to participate at all. One reason, according to the Jefferson Foundation, was that the neighborhood hadn't been very supportive; the previous year the school had sold all of 21 booklets. (An administrator says part of the reason for the poor sales was that the neighborhood was saturated by elementary-school-aged salespeople.)

Meanwhile, across the district in the affluent southwest corner, students from Westridge Elementary sold 2,200 of the coupon books.

In the past, private funding has trickled, rather than gushed, into the schools, so districts haven't made much of an attempt to measure where the money comes from, where it goes and whether it is spread evenly. Nevertheless, officials insist that they stress--and generally attain--equity.

In Denver, administrators have made a head-to-head comparison only once. Last November, in response to a parent's complaint that Slavens Elementary, on well-off South Clayton Street, had nicer facilities and equipment than Valdez Elementary in northwest Denver, the district whipped out its calculators and rustled up a report.

Thanks largely to federal grants and additional public money Valdez collected for "at-risk" students, Denver's bureaucrats found the opposite of what the parent charged: The inner-city Valdez actually spent about 50 percent more per pupil than did Slavens. "This board has made equity a priority," insists Frye.

Other studies have reached far different conclusions. In a doctoral dissertation written three years ago, Genevieve Garcia, now an elementary-school principal in Monument, analyzed privately raised money received by schools in different neighborhoods in El Paso County's District 12.

In one example, she contrasted the money raised in two elementary schools (she says she collected data with the understanding that the schools would remain anonymous) by selling class pictures. The first school earned $2,783; across the district, a similarly sized elementary school collected $452. The first school also nabbed more than $33,000 in grants from the local parent-teacher organization; the second, $4,000. "There was a huge difference," she recalls. "Basically, the rich got richer."

Dean Damon recognizes the phenomenon. Now the director of the Colorado School Finance Project, which promotes further state education funding reforms, Damon served as superintendent of the Boulder Valley School District from 1989 to 1996. Several years before he quit, he recalls canceling a popular school fundraiser in which families redeemed their Safeway and King Soopers receipts for a percentage of the total.

Although the project raised a lot of money for individual schools, Damon says he had to drop it. "The larger and more aggressive public schools in higher-income areas generated a lot more money and spent it on a lot more computers for their school," he recalls.

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