Parents propose change to Del Mar Education Foundation’s fundraising model

By Karen Billing

Del Mar Heights and Del Mar Hills parents are suggesting a change to the Del Mar Schools Education Foundation fundraising model — they would like to allow site-specific fundraising in a hybrid model instead of straight district-wide fundraising.

The Foundation funds teachers in the Extended Studies Curriculum, providing specialized instruction in science, technology, music, art and PE. In their proposed hybrid fundraising structure, presented by Heights parent Erica Halpern at the April 3 Foundation meeting, schools will still put donations into the district-wide pot. However, once each school has raised enough funds to cover its share of ESC funding, donations above that level would go back to the donating home school only.

With this new model, Halpern said that they might be able to get more from those donors who are holding back, who feel like they are giving into a “black hole” because they don’t know where the funds are going. It would mean more money in the pool by incentivizing parent giving.

“With this model, there is a lot more that we can achieve,” Halpern said.

In recent years, the Foundation has been battling rumors that there is a wide disparity between what schools fund and what schools get back. Drew Isaacman, Foundation interim president, said those rumors are not healthy for the district and they are untrue.

“There is never a delta of more than half a teacher at more than one school,” Isaacman said.

Rumors also persist that there are schools giving nothing to the Foundation and that the schools have been instructed not to donate.

“If you’re not giving to the Foundation, you’re just hurting your own kids,” said Del Mar Union School District Trustee Scott Wooden. “If people continue to be petty we will cease to have ESC as we know it.”

Halpern said parents at the Del Mar Heights “lost steam” two years ago when they saw ESC funding drop even though they gave more than the school’s share to the Foundation. As a result, Heights giving fell off by half last year.

She said in the current pooled structure, donors are disincentivized from giving more than what they think their school’s share will be. The pooled structure, she said, is putting an artificial cap on giving.

“You cannot expect any significant growth in parent giving under the current structure. We have stagnated and we don’t have enough,” Halpern said.

The Foundation board members were “pure listeners” on Wednesday night to the Hills/Heights proposal as they remain focused on reaching their fundraising goal for this year by April 30 — they have just a few weeks to raise $600,000 to keep ESC programs the same size as they are this year.

Isaacman said that the Foundation is always willing to consider any fundraising idea but not until the May through July time period as they are currently focused on the current year drive. He said the Foundation board will revisit the new fundraising model idea in the spring and summer.

Since the Foundation started 12 years ago it has operated under different models such as site specific, district wide and a hybrid of the two. In 2004-05, the Foundation went site specific and until it changed to district wide four years later, it averaged $600,000 worth of fundraising. At that time, the district did make a bigger contribution to ESC teacher salaries and other sources could be tapped for salary monies, such as the school lunch program revenues.

The 2008-09 year was a hybrid year in that the Foundation switched to the district-wide model as of April 15 so schools were given a “last chance” to raise site-specific funds, which resulted in an $1.4 million outpouring.

The Foundation has been able to almost equal that amount in the 2009 through 2012 years.

“The district-wide model has been extremely successful the last few years,” Isaacman said.

The change to the district-wide model was a result of some legal questions that arose in similar site-specific fundraising districts like those in Santa Monica-Malibu and Manhattan Beach. Wooden explained that there has been legal precedence set that there cannot be significant differences between funding allocation to the schools and if there is the district cannot accept donations.

“We couldn’t accept donations if one school could fund 10 teachers and another only one, due to education code,” Wooden said.

Neighboring Solana Beach School District does site-specific fundraising but the difference is the Solana Beach School District does not fund credentialed teachers in the classroom.

The district is down to 33.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) ESC teachers. The Foundation funds 13 of ESC teachers and as a result of a prep-time formula in teachers’ contracts, the district funds 21 ESC teachers.

One parent asked why the Foundation’s goal is to raise $2 million with an $800 per parent suggested donation when they have never come close to raising $2 million in the past.

“The goal is to get our side up to [funding] 19 or 20 [teachers] for [a total of] 40 teachers and full programs at all eight schools,” Isaacman said.

Halpern said that the schools are fortunate that thanks to parent giving they are able to have some ESC programming but no school has enough. The smaller schools have partial programs and the larger schools have too few teachers for the number of students they have, she said.

“We can do better. Much better. We all know that many parents in this district can give more and many of them want to give more,” Halpern said. “We have to find a way to accept their money.”

Halpern said that parents give most when they can see the impact of their donation, in action at their home school. She said she understands that parents shouldn’t mind if their dollars go to a school that their children don’t attend as it is still a worthy cause, but she said people will give even more when they see the impact of their donation.

“It is not a coincidence that giving to the Del Mar Schools Education Foundation has been flat at $1.3 million for three years and on track to reach a similar level this year,” Halpern said.

Isaacman said he did not want the meeting to become a back and forth discussion so he did his best to limit debate. There were several parents in attendance interested in pursuing the hybrid model, others expressed opposition to site-specific fundraising and wanted to keep the current district-wide model.

Isaacman used the time to address a few other rumors circulating that might be hurting fundraising efforts. He stressed that the money the Foundation gives to the district is restricted and cannot be used for anything other than ESC salaries.

The ESC monies are then allocated to the eight schools proportional to their enrollment and each school’s principals makes the decision on where to put that money.

For example, Ashley Falls School de-emphasized music and doubled-up on technology.

One Del Mar Heights parent pointed out that parents were disappointed when they held their biggest fundraiser ever two years ago, grossing $86,000, and then still lost music the next year. She said they aren’t giving because they feel like they go above and beyond and still lose.

Isaacman said the decision to lose music was a site decision. The Foundation does not make decisions on how the ESC monies are allocated.

As an added incentive, an anonymous donor made an offer to the Foundation at last week’s meeting that they will donate matching funds up to $15,000 for any school site that makes its Foundation contribution level at or above the cost of the ESC staff for the current year.

“I feel we have watched our programs diminish and be eliminated and it is time to get mad and say stop,” the donor’s offer letter read. “I challenge other parents in the district to join me and offer matching funds of your own to every school. Let’s return some of the programs lost for the sake of our children.”