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Does PTA Fundraising Reduce Pressure On Lawmakers To Fund Schools?

Parker Miles Blohm
Elliott, Paul and Frances Bugala outside Gatewood Elementary in West Seattle

It’s been more than five years since the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state was failing to fully fund basic education and more than a decade since the McCleary lawsuit was originally filed. The McCleary kids have graduated from high school in the meantime.

In Seattle, fundraising by parents has helped to fill the void at some schools. Other, higher-poverty schools don’t have the ability to lean on parents to augment budgets.

Has that fundraising by parent-teacher associations reduced pressure on lawmakers in Olympia to come up with more dollars for schools? Some parents say no, and that they can’t sacrifice their kids’ education waiting for legislators to provide more resources.

On a recent morning in West Seattle, Frances and Elliott Bugala were in the midst of the scramble to get ready for school. It was a Thursday – when Frances, a fourth grader, takes instrumental music class.

She took a minute to demonstrate how she can pluck the violin and recite a phrase her teacher taught her to remember the order of the strings.

“Eek, ants digging in the dirt underneath the ground,” she said.

She comes from a musical family – her dad plays guitar – but Frances was drawn to the violin.

“I like the sound of it, and it just looked a lot like fun,” Frances said.

The school district provides half a day of instrumental music per week, but there were a lot of kids at Gatewood that wanted to learn an instrument. So the PTA is paying for another half day of instruction per week.

“I think the issue I have is we have these needs now,” said Paul Bugala, the father of Frances and first-grader Elliott.

Bugala said it’s not ideal to pay for instrumental music class through parent fundraising, but waiting for the state to come up with more money for education shortchanges kids in the interim.

After a long process, lawmakers passed an education funding plan in June, but the state Supreme Court said recently that the legislature has to come up with another $1 billion or so next year.

“If there’s a way to show progress or that we’re addressing these types of issues that doesn’t involve taking kids out of music classes, I’d be all ears,” Bugala said.

The main way Gatewood’s PTA raises money is through an auction that brings in about $50,000 after expenses.

“We’re not even in the top tier of what PTAs around the city raise,” said Alexandra Olins, who has a third grader at Gatewood and is secretary of the PTA.

Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX
Alexandra Olins has a third grader at Gatewood Elementary and is secretary of the PTA.

Gatewood’s PTA doesn’t pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year like parent groups at some Seattle schools. Olins said Gatewood’s PTA has a lot of discussions about equity and provides scholarships for kids who can’t afford certain activities. She said they’ve discussed the idea of pooling PTA revenue to share with higher-need schools.

At the same time, Olins is concerned that Gatewood doesn’t have the resources it needs.

One in four kids gets free or reduced lunch, but that’s not a high enough percentage to qualify the school for additional federal dollars known as Title I. Olins said her son’s class of 29 is crowded.

“It gives me this gnawing unease that he’s not getting exactly what I hope he would be getting,” she said. “It’s not consistent with the public education that I got growing up in Massachusetts. We didn’t have class sizes that big.”

Parents across Seattle face these dilemmas – large classes, a lack of school counselors, part-time librarians. In some schools, PTA dollars help pay the salaries of counselors, librarians, tutors and other staff.

But increasingly, parents are raising concerns about inequities when other schools can’t tap those private dollars. Bellevue and Lake Washington school districts don’t allow PTAs at individual schools to pay for teachers. Several months ago, one Seattle school board director suggested doing something similar.

Olins takes issue with the idea.

“I don’t believe that it would be the right thing to do for the PTAs to not be able to fill positions that, to my mind, do constitute a basic education that my child needs,” she said.

But there is a concern that when PTAs fill in the gaps with private dollars, it masks the ways in which schools are underfunded and relieves pressure on lawmakers.

Credit Ashley Gross / KNKX
Twenty-four percent of kids at Gatewood Elementary qualify for free or reduced lunch, but that's not a large enough percentage to qualify for additional federal dollars known as Title I.

“Our kids don’t even have some of the basic things that they need in buildings, and many of us are just writing a check and never saying anything,” said Sebrena Burr, president of the Seattle Council PTSA, an umbrella organization for PTSAs in the city. “What if all of us picked up the phone, too? It’s an 800 number to Olympia.”

Five years ago, the Washington State PTA passed a resolution advising that PTAs not fund additional school staff because the focus should be on advocating for full education funding. But Olins said she doesn’t think PTA fundraising has made parents complacent about pushing for more state dollars.

“I work full time. I went to Olympia to testify on the importance of fully funding public schools twice last year,” Olins said.

In her view, PTA dollars are necessary right now as a stopgap when the system is inadequately funded. Olins said ideally the state should just raise more in tax revenue so that all schools get what they need. She said she really values public education and her son loves Gatewood, but she and her husband sometimes consider sending him to private school.

“It’s always in the back of our minds – either private school or possibly relocating back to Massachusetts, which is a public school system that’s top-notch,” Olins said.

In Olympia, the 60-day legislative session starts on Jan. 8.

Parents are likely to head back to the capital to testify once again for more education dollars. At the same time, they continue to try to raise PTA dollars for the here and now.

This story is the second half in a two-part series about PTA fundraising. You can find the first part on fundraising inequities here

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.