Education Matters: When foundation appeals cross the line

Every few months, a parent tells me that their school’s foundation is fundraising in a way that feels punitive.

Through strong-arm tactics and coercive language, foundation flyers and pleas for money often convey a sense of intimidation. They do not make clear that no child can be excluded from school activities, whether parents donate or not.

Instead of an incentive to donate, the messages suggest there’s a negative consequence for not donating.

This issue never seems to go away.

Parents, you do not have to donate money to a school or its foundation for your child to be included in school classes and events. Know that.

The latest incident came from Solana Vista School in the Solana Beach School District. Solana Vista educates about 450 students in kindergarten through third grade.

In mid-November, a flyer requesting a donation of $375 per child to the Solana Beach Schools Foundation was sent home with each Solana Vista student. This was clearly a school-endorsed communication.

The flyer read: “There are only two weeks left for you to make your donation to the Solana Beach Schools Foundation and help your class launch into the blast zone! If your class doesn’t reach 75% participation by December 1, then your kids will not be able to participate in this exciting opportunity for a special Discovery Lab with Mr. Lynch on Discovery Day, January 13, 2017. This is something your kids won’t want to miss, so make your donation today!”

Word is at least one child went home in tears, believing they would be excluded from the event.

The flyer included a list of classroom teachers and what percentage each class had received thus far in donations. Those classes with over 75 percent participation were listed under the heading “Mission Accomplished.”

Under “Reaching for the Stars” were the names of the other classroom teachers, and next to each was shown the percentage of participation for each class, ranging from 41 to 72 percent.

Although asking for $375, the flyer did state that any amount “counts toward participation.”

Students in those classes that hadn’t reached 75 percent participation by the Dec. 1 deadline, the flyer stated, would not be allowed to take part in “a special” Discovery Day event.

This is described as a classroom competition, thereby pitting teacher against teacher, classroom against classroom, parents against parents. And kids against kids?

If one classroom has more students who qualify for the free and reduced lunch program than another class with more middle and upper-middle class families, then the class with more kids in poverty is clearly at a disadvantage.

I’m just not seeing how this is a healthy competition. It shames and embarrasses low-income families and places unjustifiable pressure on every family to donate money for fear their child will be left out.

Decorating a rocket

I asked SBSD superintendent Terry Decker to explain how this is in keeping with the law that guarantees a free public education for all.

Even though the flyer states the opposite, Decker said, “All of the students at the school will participate in a rocket launch activity during the school’s Science Discovery Day. No child will be excluded from that activity based on the level of donations from their class.”

The flyer, he said, “does not give an accurate representation of the event.”

However, he said that only the classes that reach 75 percent participation will be able to decorate one of the rockets.

“Decorating the rocket is not part of the instructional program,” he said. “It is a recognition of participation in the fundraiser.”

Decker said that California Education Code “allows schools to provide pupils with prizes or other recognition for voluntarily participating in fundraising activities.”

Even if legal, is it ethical? Maybe recognize the parents, but why the kids?

Also, what about the kids whose families did donate but their class still didn’t reach 75 percent?

Okay, I know decorating a rocket might not seem like a big deal. But if you’re 5, 6, 7 or 8 years old, it matters.

Small children will see this as a privilege for families that have more money than others – and as punishment for those who can’t afford to donate.

Decker said he and Solana Vista principal Katie Zimmer would be issuing another flyer to make clear that the rocket launch event is for all students “and participation is not contingent on a donation.”

Clearly, that point was not made in the original flyer, so I was interested to see the next version.

Misleading parents

Days and days went by, school was closed the week of Thanksgiving, and by early the following week still no new flyer.

Finally, on Nov. 30, one day before the Dec. 1 deadline for donations, a new flyer was issued.

This flyer removed the chart that showed which classrooms were meeting their contribution goals, but nowhere was there language that indicated the original flyer was wrong or needed to be clarified.

It simply said one day was remaining to meet fundraising goals. And there was this: “Classes that reach 75% participation in the fund drive by December 1 will be recognized with a special activity … and all Solana Vista students will take part in a rocket launch on Discovery Day January 13, 2017.”

Decker said the Solana Vista principal worked with the foundation’s executive director, Patti Malmuth, on the flyer.

They were very good at revising their words to comply with the law, while carefully crafting the language to omit any admission of guilt for misleading parents in the first flyer.

The horse has left the barn. The intimidation has already happened, and the mistake was not clarified in any timely or meaningful way.

Decker said it was important to remember that foundation members are volunteers who mean well and simply want to help their school. He said when they understood their mistake, “they felt terrible.”

“It was not their intention to intimidate anyone, and they will know to be more sensitive to that issue moving forward,” he said.

When I asked if he was satisfied with that second flyer, he said yes.

“The flyer appropriately and accurately describes the fundraiser, makes clear that all students participate in the school-wide activity, points out that any amount a family donates counts toward participation, and omits the table showing standings by classroom,” Decker wrote in an email.

That may be technically true, but without clearly stating that they made an error in the first flyer, the subtle differences in the second version are easily missed.

Training is key

These are good people, not villains. But every board member of every foundation needs to think carefully how their words will be received by those less fortunate economically. It’s a matter of increased sensitivity.

Parents at other Solana Beach schools should take note and be aware of their rights, if these same kinds of messages are communicated.

This incident illustrates a much larger problem. This obfuscating language is typical of flyers that school foundations commonly employ, although the rewards for donating (and punishments for not donating) differ from school to school.

Public schools cannot demand payment or deny students access to classes or school-wide activities – from cheerleading camp, soccer uniforms, cameras in photography classes, clay in art classes, costumes in theater, band instruments … all the way down from high school to kindergarten where not being allowed to decorate a rocket can be heart-breaking for a 5-year-old.

What has to happen is training. New foundation leaders need to understand how not to cross the line.

And every time communication goes out to parents and families, it has to be vetted by the school principal who also needs training. The principal has to be held accountable and responsible, as an employee of the school district.

Oversight is critical by school districts where superintendents and principals know the laws and need to be vigilant about the messages – written or implied.

In Solana Beach, Decker said lessons were learned and there’s now greater understanding of the issue. He agreed that training is key and said he spoke with all his principals “about appropriate approaches to fundraising and the messaging that goes with it.”

He also said Malmuth, the foundation’s executive director, will “talk about this issue with the site presidents at their next meeting, and is adding it to the site president training/orientation done in the summer.”

Maybe we’d have more compassion if we tried harder to see the world through the eyes of a low-income child. There are so many obstacles they will face in life – they don’t need to start off at age 5 with constant reminders at school of all the opportunities they will be denied because of income inequality.

Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at