The Bake Sale: School Fundraisers Raising Their Sights
June 9, 2008
SIMSBURY — - Kris
Barnett and Sheila Gschwind are foot soldiers in the
endless struggle to raise money for the public schools.
They’ve whipped up cookies for the PTO bake sale, chased
down donors for the silent auction, peddled pricey
wrapping paper and directed students to collect
thousands of pennies to help pay for a new playground.
Now these two mothers, along with other education
boosters in Simsbury, are setting their sights
significantly higher: They have launched a campaign,
complete with a professionally produced marketing video
and what amounts to a schoolhouse version of naming
rights, to raise $1.5 million.
That’s a lot of cookies — and it may explain why Barnett
and Gschwind, like supporters of cash-strapped public
school districts around the nation, are looking beyond
the bake sale.
“We’ve scaled up,” said Kevin Welner, director of the
Education in the Public Interest Center at the
University of Colorado at Boulder. “Even schools in
well-off areas are holding major fundraisers. I doubt
the endowments are going to rival Yale’s, but they are
using a lot of the same tactics.”
About half of all school districts nationally now have
independent foundations to solicit donors, organize
fundraisers and dole out grants, according to the
National School Foundation Association.
Even so, Simsbury’s lofty goal stands out. “I haven’t
heard a figure of a million-plus before,” said Liz
Stokes, president of the Connecticut Consortium of
A number that high is perhaps only attainable in a
well-heeled bedroom community where many denizens have
ties to the region’s major corporations.
For schools, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Instead of
paying for the little extras, such as new band uniforms
or a class trip, private donors increasingly are picking
up at least a portion of the tab for educational
essentials. Simsbury’s fund drive will help underwrite
the purchase of pricey new classroom technology,
equipment that educators say is crucial to learning in
the 21st century.
The board of education is committed to spending about
$600,000 a year during the next five years on laptops,
interactive white boards and document cameras, with
additional money to be allocated later for maintenance
and replacement. But the annual cost of purchasing the
equipment is about $900,000, leaving a shortfall of
$300,000, or $1.5 million over the five-year span.
That’s where volunteers such as Gschwind, a former
information technology professional who left the
corporate world after giving birth to twins, and
Barnett, a real estate agent and mother of two, come in.
They hope to tap grants, reach out to alumni and secure
contributions from the business community in their quest
to fill the gap in government spending.
A decade ago, the board of education would have
purchased classroom technology. But in an era of
spiraling costs and surging taxpayer frustration,
parents and school officials have had to come up with
new revenue streams to supplement public money.
Simsbury school board Chairman Jack Sennott said he
would love to be able to fully fund the district’s
technology program. “I’d also love to have no user fees
for athletics and three language choices in fourth grade
and expand the strings program,” he said. “These are all
choices you make from an economic perspective.”
The business community is more than willing to help out.
However, many corporations focus their philanthropy on
urban schools, whose needs dwarf those in the suburbs.
The Hartford Financial Services Group, for instance,
supports education in many of the places that it has an
office, including Simsbury, where the insurer’s
contributions have helped pay for a children’s media hub
at the town library, among other programs. But
spokeswoman Shannon Lapierre explained in an e-mail that
the company places a special emphasis on Hartford,
“which has been our home for nearly 200 years and is
where we see a critical need.”
For all of its affluence, Simsbury, a pastoral suburb of
sprawling homes and superior test scores, faces many of
the pressures that less-wealthy communities encounter.
Education costs are taking a larger bite out of
municipal budgets. With salaries and benefits making up
more than 80 percent of school spending in most towns,
and fixed costs, such as utilities and fuel, on the
rise, there is not a lot of money left for laptops and
other pricey new necessities.
“A generation ago, it was pencils, paper, books, chalk —
pretty cheap,” said Jim Collogan, executive director of
the National School Foundation Association.
There are more teaching tools than ever, but “taxpayer
support of public schools has not kept pace with the
technological needs,” he added.
To Superintendent Diane Ullman, that means one thing:
“We’re going to have to look beyond the property tax
The campaign will be run much like a university
fundraising drive, targeting big corporations and local
businesses as well as alumni and individuals.
There will be enticements, such as the chance for donors
who give $10,000 or more to get their name — but not
their company’s logo — on a plaque outside a classroom,
or even lend their name to an entire grade level —
within limits, of course.
“We’re not going to let Marlboro cigarettes or Smirnoff
vodka put their name on a classroom,” Barnett said.
Such companies sell products that don’t mesh with the
school district’s mission, she explained.
All large gifts would need approval from the school
board, Barnett said.
“This whole naming rights thing is so new to us. We have
to be selective because we’re dealing with a public
school system,” she said. “We’ll look at everything on a
case-by-case basis. ... If it’s a conflict of interest
in any way with the town and the school, certainly we
couldn’t name a classroom or grade level after them.”
The group’s first task will be to sell the community on
the importance of classroom technology. Wireless laptop
carts and white boards, interactive boards that are
connected to computers, should no longer be seen as
frills, Gschwind said. They are tools that promote
collaboration, enhance teaching and allow children to
learn in different ways, she added.
Such equipment “can really help bring what teachers are
talking about to life,” Gschwind said.
Moreover, the lives of today’s students are steeped in
“These children are putting webcams on their ski helmets
and posting videos. They are used to using all these
different technologies,” she said.
“This is the world they live in.”
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