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Education Matters: Making “the list”

Marsha Sutton

In a note referencing my column two weeks ago about the $25 “fee” the Canyon Crest Academy Foundation charged for physical exams for high school athletes, a parent said this was the tip of the iceberg.

Her concern centered on the strong-arm tactics some schools use to raise donations from parents.

It’s not just the nickel-and-dime approach – $10 here, $25 there – that irks many parents. It’s the big-buck pleas, the ones that make less well-off parents feel ashamed that they can’t afford to give.

“In many different ways, the foundations urge you to pay, and shame you if you don’t,” this parent wrote. “We are now known as the ‘poor’ family, because we can’t afford to attend functions with price tags in the hundreds of dollars so that the school can buy supplies.

“It’s public school, so why are we constantly bombarded with fees and costs? Thanks for shedding some light and holding people accountable.”

To be fair, I also received letters from parents saying, essentially, “What’s the big deal? It’s only $25.”

“Are we seriously wasting the time of dedicated volunteers and principals over a $25 charge or even the wording to charge?” one local letter-writer said. “I realize it is the wording that has everyone in cahoots and it needs to say volunteer donation, but give me a break ... education needs to be free, not sports physicals.”

This parent said low-income parents “are just happy the schools have so much to offer.”

Under her name, she identified herself as “a friend to many low-income families.”

I see her point too. Less affluent families move into these districts, many sacrificing a great deal, to give their kids an opportunity for an excellent education. And indeed, many tolerate the little charges here and there, just grateful to have their children receive the benefit of the stellar education local districts provide.

Nevertheless, there are principles – and laws – that must be followed, to adhere to the requirement for equal access to public education, and that includes all the extracurricular activities schools offer.

In the Solana Beach School District, I was told that two schools – Solana Highlands and Solana Pacific – listed the names of donors at school entrances, on school websites, and in emails and letters sent home to families.

The foundation, a parent said, asks parents to donate a suggested $375 per child and that her family “was publicly shamed by not having our names on that list, because there was no way we could afford it.”

SBSD superintendent Nancy Lynch told me these practices are not unique to those two schools.

Lynch, who resigned July 1 to take a position in Northern California, said that all SBSD schools do this, some in different ways, but that family names are listed publicly, to recognize and thank donors and to encourage others to give.

However, Lynch said the amounts donated are not listed, and that anyone who gives any amount is recognized and their names are included on the list.

“If anyone donates even a dollar, they get recognized publicly like everyone else,” Lynch said. It shows “they’ve got skin in the game.”

Lynch said she had no objections to the practice of listing donors’ names as long as no amounts or levels of contributions are shown, noting that this is common practice for many nonprofit organizations.

Feeling embarrassed

When compared to the Del Mar Union School District, Solana Beach’s approach seems tame.

The DMUSD’s foundation lists what’s called its “honor roll” – which names donors who have contributed $250 or more each fiscal year. Going further, the foundation lists the names of donors in bold who have given $800 or more.

The names and donations are connected to particular schools, so anyone can check the list to see who at their school has given – and by extension, who has not. One can also see the disparity between levels of giving.

The Rancho Santa Fe Education Foundation asks families to join its “Scholars’ Circle” – featuring three contribution levels: $100,000 or more, $50,000 to $99,000, and $35,000 to $49,999.

Contributions, the website states, can be paid over a one- to five-year period of time, and donors receive permanent inscription on the Scholars’ Circle Giving Tree.

“Traditionally, the RSF Education Foundation sent out mailers with names of donors by giving levels,” one former RSF parent wrote. “Everyone loved to see who was where.”

Canyon Crest Academy’s foundation also lists names and levels of giving for each fiscal year. The website lists donors all the way back to the 2005-2006 school year.

Names of corporations and individuals are provided, categorized by the following levels: $10,000 or more, $5,000 to $9,999, $2,500 to $4,999, $1,000 to $2,499, and $500 to $999.

Torrey Pines High School’s foundation also lists names of donors, the most recent in its April/May 2015 newsletter, although blessedly no amounts are attached to the names.

Although we’d like to think that no one would ever search for who’s missing and silently make judgments about them, those who cannot afford to donate at these levels often feel “outed” and embarrassed – labeled as either poor or selfish.

Sensitivity needed

No one questions that the work of foundations in local schools helps make great schools even better. Without the generosity of donors, much of what happens in local public education would not exist. They deserve recognition and public thanks.

Volunteers who help run foundations and coordinate the events they sponsor to raise money also deserve credit and our gratitude.

However, it’s a fact that it’s easier to give when you are financially comfortable than when you’re not. And it can be natural for lower-income families to feel the sting of rejection, real or imagined, by others who are afflicted with what my father used to call “affluenza.”

It’s not private school – it’s public. And that means taking care to ensure that all families, no matter their socio-economic status, feel welcomed and respected – and that they have been treated fairly and been given equal access to all that public education has to offer, regardless of how much money they can donate.

It’s important to be mindful of how these lists make less-affluent families feel and understand that sensitivity is needed when soliciting for dollars.

That’s why wording and phrasing are important, and that’s why care must be taken to ensure that schools are inclusive and accepting of families of all cultures and income levels.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at suttonmarsha@gmail.com.


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