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Closing The 'PTA Gap' In Seattle: Parents And School District Wrestle With Inequities

Ashley Gross
Parents from around West Seattle met to discuss ways to share resources and knowledge between PTAs that are fundraising powerhouses and higher-poverty schools that have difficulty raising money.

(Updated at 12:50 pm, Dec. 4, 2017, to correct how much money was raised by the Lafayette Elementary and Genesee Hill Elementary PTA auctions.)

Public schools are supposed to be paid for with taxes. But in Seattle, depending on which school your kid attends, you may be asked to kick in substantial amounts of money.

The request doesn’t come from the school, but from the PTSA, the parent teacher student association.  Some of those parent groups raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for their schools, infusing money into the budget for lunchroom aides, tutors, counselors, librarians and teachers.

There are annual fund campaigns, walk-a-thons, dine-out fundraisers at restaurants, and, of course, auctions, where parents bid hundreds of dollars on artwork created by their kid’s class or a weekend at a ski cabin. At one school’s auction, an assortment of 50 bottles of wine donated by parents and billed as an “instant wine cellar” often fetches a couple thousand dollars.

There’s a lot of ingenuity and energy and volunteer hours fueling these fundraising efforts, and parents say the extra dollars are needed because of chronic underfunding of public schools in Washington state.

And yet there are other schools in the district that have no PTSAs at all.

More and more parents are saying that inequity is wrong, and something needs to change. But school district officials argue the district’s funding formula more than offsets those private dollars by steering extra money to high-poverty schools.

Rebecca Evans is a parent at one of those high-poverty schools. She lives in West Seattle and has a first-grader at Sanislo Elementary.

Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX
Rebecca Evans and her son, Cameron, a first grader at Sanislo Elementary

She found out at a parent meeting last year that test scores were lagging and that the school had a high poverty rate. Some parents were trying to transfer their kids to other schools. But she thought back to an interview she’d heard with New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. Hannah-Jones explained why she opted to keep her daughter in a high-poverty school.

“She didn’t feel her daughter was deserving of more than any other students, and if you can say that a school isn’t good enough for my child, then why should any children be allowed to go there?” Evans said.

That idea stuck with her. Evans made up her mind to stay put and work to help the school. She dove into organizing the Sanislo PTA auction and realized it was not an easy task.

“About a week and a half before the auction, we had sold about 22 tickets out of 150 tickets,” Evans said.

The tickets were just $10. But two-thirds of kids at Sanislo qualify for free or reduced lunch and there are a lot of recent immigrants and English language learners. Going to an auction to spend lots of money on the school just isn’t top-of-mind for families.

It’s a different story at other schools in West Seattle. Lafayette Elementary, where my own kids go to school, raised about $70,000 at its auction in the spring. Genesee Hill Elementary pulled in $180,000.

“Our goal for Sanislo’s auction was $5,000,” Evans said with a laugh. “To just put it into perspective.”

But Evans had an idea. Why not invite the whole community? She sent it to the West Seattle Blog and every other site she could think of.

“Social media is incredible,” she said. “I pushed it out to Nextdoor. I pushed it out to West Seattle Moms, West Seattle Giving Tree, West Seattle Shares, you name it.”

That made the difference. Community members, including parents from other schools, snapped up the tickets, and the auction raised three times the original goal.

Now Evans has founded a group called the West Seattle School Parent Collaborative to bring PTAs in West Seattle together to share ideas and resources and help the parent groups at schools that are struggling.

At a meeting in August, she greeted about 15 parents from schools across West Seattle who gathered in a room at a public library. It was a good cross-section of elementary schools, ranging from more affluent ones, such as Genesee Hill, to high-poverty schools such as Highland Park and Roxhill.

Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX
Kevin Broveleit, a parent at Genesee Hill Elementary, explained how he helped organize the PTA's auction, which raised about $200,000.

Kevin Broveleit from Genesee Hill explained how his school’s auction has become a fun social event for parents and has grown so much in popularity, they moved to a bigger venue. He offered to help other schools organize their own auctions.

“There are tons of resources that are duplicated at every single school that we should be sharing,” he said. “This year was the first year ever (that) we shared volunteers with Lafayette. They sent us a dozen volunteers, we sent them a dozen volunteers.”

Connie Wolf from Highland Park, a school where three quarters of kids qualify for free or reduced lunch, spoke about how her school’s PTA manages to do a lot on a shoestring budget and is working to become the hub of the South Delridge neighborhood.

“Our budget is $6,500,” she said. “Our events are super well-attended, our stuff is free. But we really do appreciate when Alki (Elementary) donated $560 from their walk-a-thon. That’s awesome for us.”

That idea of sharing the wealth is catching on.

A group of parents called the PTSA Equity Project Seattle has suggested creating what they call an equity fund that all PTAs pay into to redistribute a portion of money to high-need schools. It would be modeled after something similar in Portland that’s existed for more than 20 years.

Makeba Greene, a mom involved in the PTSA Equity Project, said they want to hold meetings early next year to explore ways to address inequities in parent fundraising.

“How can we talk more about who we view as our children?” Greene said. “As we’re thinking about raising money and supporting the education of our students, how can we look beyond just our students in our school and really think about our district as a whole?”

A different approach would be for the school district to just say no and prohibit PTAs from paying for teachers. That’s what Bellevue and Lake Washington school districts do, though they have districtwide foundations that contribute money to school programs.

Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX
Seattle School Board Director Leslie Harris suggested several months ago that the district prohibit PTAs from paying for teachers and other school staff, but she's since said more community engagement is needed before making such a change.

A few months back, Seattle School Board Director Leslie Harris suggested Seattle follow their lead and bar PTAs at individual schools from paying for teachers and other staff. She’s now less adamant and says more community dialogue is needed.

JoLynn Berge, finance chief for Seattle Public Schools, said that kind of policy could backfire and that it’s not necessary.

“In Seattle, I feel like we do have a formula that counterbalances what parents at a rich school can afford to donate versus parents at a school with higher poverty,” she said.

It can get complicated when you delve into school funding, but here’s the bottom line: High-poverty schools get more money. They can tap the city’s Families and Education Levy, they get federal dollars called Title I aimed at helping kids who are struggling, and the school district itself allocates money for each kid who qualifies for free or reduced lunch.

“It’s additional dollars for every student in poverty that you have, because we recognize generally speaking students in poverty need more services,” she said. “So the allocation – you get another $200 to $300 depending on what grade level in elementary school that you’re in for every student in poverty.”

She said the district also uses what it calls an “equity tiering” system to direct more money to schools that have a high concentration of children of color and kids living in poverty, as well as low test scores.

It’s hard to argue with steering more money to kids with bigger needs. But in an underfunded school system, has Seattle become dependent on private dollars from parent groups? Is the district relying on wealthier parents to pad the budgets of high-income schools?

“I don’t think that’s what we’re doing,” Berge said. “We don’t say, 'Oh, you’re going to get $50,000, so we’ll take our allocation and reduce it by $50,000.'”

Not everyone agrees that Title I and other programs aimed at kids in poverty eliminate the disparity with schools that get lots of PTA dollars. Title I dollars carry more restrictions.

Pam McCowan-Conyers is principal of West Seattle Elementary, a school with a large East African population and where 83 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced lunch. There’s a parent booster club, but no formal PTA, so raising money for class excursions or the fifth graders’ trip to an outdoor education center on Bainbridge Island is difficult.

“PTAs get to do whatever they want – you just go to the parents, you appeal, they’re right here on the ground level, they know what you’re talking about, and that’s it,” she said. “With Title I, it’s totally different.”

It’s an equity issue, she said, echoing the parents who are pushing to reduce PTA disparities.

On Tuesday, KNKX will report on parents who push back on the narrative that PTA fundraising reduces pressure on state lawmakers to come up with more money for education. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.