What does the PTA pay for?

I can't find the link now, but last week I heard a story on NPR about a PTA that was buying paper for the teachers to use in the classroom, with money they had been saving for new playground equipment.  The reporter was shocked that this was necessary, but I went to public schools in New York City in the 1970s, and I definitely remember the school running out of paper (for the mimeos!) by late in the term.

Laura at 11d linked to this article about a Long Island school district where parents raised over half a million dollars to preserve school sports and other extracurriculars after the school system's budget was turned down.  Laura wonders if this undermines school equity.  I'm less worried about that situation, where the largess seems to have been spread across the whole district, than the situation you sometimes see where parents raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for specific schools, sometimes hiring extra teachers.  They're willing to do it, because it's still cheaper than private school.

Our school PTA's total annual budget is about $25,000, with the largest fundraisers being sale of Sally Foster giftwrap, a silent auction, and a craft fair.  When the economy gets better, I want to look into putting the big items for the auction online and marketing them outside the school community — we get some really nice donations, but there's just not enough people in the school who can afford them for them to go for more than the minimum bid.  But we sweat the small stuff too.  We had an election day bakesale, and we collect General Mills box tops.

What do we pay for?  The two biggest expenses are teacher workshops and training, and buses to let each class go on two field trips a year.  We buy some computer equipment for the school (smart boards) and books for the school library.  We bring in visiting authors, and give all the teachers small stipends to cover some of the things they buy for the classroom, which otherwise come out of their pockets.  It's not a ton of money, but it makes life measurably better for the school.

Oh yeah, and we also pay for cheese sandwiches for kids who don't have lunch money.  Unlike in some places, this hasn't been a big deal.  My guess is that it's because slightly more than half of the school qualifies for free or reduced price lunch, so the kids who wind up getting cheese sandwiches aren't particularly poor.  They're either kids whose families are having sudden hard times and haven't gotten the paperwork in, or they're kids who just forgot to bring in lunch money.  We do send a note to the parents, asking them to reimburse the PTA and giving them info on how to apply for school lunches. 

(By contrast, with hindsight, I'm horrified at the memory of the oh-so-progressive elementary school I attended, where only the kids who ate "hot lunch" sat in the cafeteria, and everyone else ate in the auditorium.  The hot lunch was notoriously awful, and I'm sure that everyone who ate it was getting the free lunch.  Sigh.)

What does your PTA pay for?  And do you think it's appropriate?

22 Responses to “What does the PTA pay for?”

  1. Laura Says:

    I have no idea what we pay for. Some of the same stuff you’ve mentioned. But I’m lamely not involved because I’ve been turned off by the PTA’s focus on fund raising. Because I think that we shouldn’t need fund raising like that. I don’t think the school should count on it and should instead budget for enough paper or training or whatever. I could see the PTA funding enrichment programs, true extras for the school that would be a treat for the students or teachers. But it seems like the essentials should be funded outright. I know that’s a lot to ask and schools never seem to have enough money, but my feeling is that I’m paying taxes to pay for school stuff already.
    I guess I shouldn’t have this attitude given that colleges and universities do the same thing and that most of our other public services–police, fire station, etc.–also do fundraisers. I guess I’m thinking, what the hell do my taxes pay for and why can’t we appropriately fund these things without relying on charity?

  2. Lisa V Says:

    It would be great if we could budget for “extras”. Unfortunately education is funded so poorly that paying salaries and facility costs takes nearly every dime. Seriously it’s over 90% of the budget.
    Our school has no PTA. Our parents do two fundraisers a year. A fall campaign where we tell parents “we need money”. Some parents pledge monthly, some give a one-time gift. Donations range from $25 to $2000. It raises anywhere from $35K to 55K depending on the year. It all goes to the general fund. It’s our alternative to Sally Foster and the like. We as parents just thought it was better to cut out the middle man, say we needed money and give it directly to the school. Rather than selling $10K worth of products, and getting $5K, we get all of it. Plus it’s such a relief to not have to push products. It also takes the kids out of it, parents and teachers here feel really strongly that it’s not a kid’s job to fund raise.
    We have a silent and live auction that raises roughly the same amount ($35K to 55K). Part of that is designated for professional development, but the bulk goes into the general fund.
    Oh and we don’t have the money for cheese sandwiches. Someone forgets a lunch and they get a jelly sandwich (peanut butter banned from the school because of a super severe allergy) or a frozen bean burrito. The staff actually provides those.

  3. jen Says:

    My kids go to parochial school, so it’s a little different. There’s a tuition scholarship program that provides lower tuition levels to students who can’t foot the ~$3000 a year for an elementary school seat. And then there’s the general fund, which the annual fun fairs and silent auction support. That goes to things like computer equipment, playground equipment, books for the library, teacher training, etc. You can also depend upon special requests for building fund needs, like when the library ceiling collapsed from water damage last summer.
    Various friends of mine send their kids to Burley Elementary, a city of Chicago public elementary school that fully funds all arts programming — including a teacher’s salary — through PTA fundraising.
    One thing that disturbs me about all the fundraising is the cliquishness it seems to foster at the parent level. At our school, a set of stay-home moms devotes massive hours to these projects. I personally believe the choice to devote so many hours is made partially because of the fundraising need but partially because the parents want to keep resumes up-to-date, want the social and intellectual stimulus, etc. But you are clearly considered a second-rate member of school society if you don’t participate at this level. Especially for someone like myself, an introvert who avoids large chaotic events, it’s hard. Instead of bidding on a $75 gift certificate at the auction, we turn our (large) checks in at the school office, which of course does not publish donation levels. And so it appears that we’re Not Really Helping. There go the play date invitations. Yuck.

  4. Rachel Says:

    Here, I do think PTA fundraising undermines school equality. The well-heeled parents in the “good” schools fund extras like music and art, and soon they’ll probably be paying teacher salaries because of state-wide budget cuts. Whereas the poorer schools will just have to make do with their budgets. No doubt that will mean larger classes, no librarian, etc. (I live in CA.)

  5. bj Says:

    “Various friends of mine send their kids to Burley Elementary, a city of Chicago public elementary school that fully funds all arts programming — including a teacher’s salary — through PTA fundraising. ”
    Also true here, where private fundraising is pretty much unlimited. There are several public *elementary* schools that raise $250,000 and more. It’s not unusual for public high schools to raise a million. And, a quirk in that fund raising is that Microsoft (and some other such companies) matches up to 10K of donations from their employees. So, 12 Microsoft families making 7K (10K- the tax break) donations can raise that amount of money. 7K is substantially less tan private school tuition. The fundraising is unlimited and the choice on what it’s spent on is a negotiation between the PTA & the principal (there are no central guidelines or prohibitions, and no centralized sharing). Some principals have taken to turning down the money when they’re asked to spend it on something they don’t see as a programmatic need (needless to say, this does not make for happy PTAs and principals). In one case, the PTA paid for a high school math teacher, as long as the teacher taught the class they wanted (an upper level math class, which could only be taken by the subgroup of kids who had already taken the prerequisites).
    People have become so used to this that they are completely blind to the potential iniquities. When asked about it, they’ll ask why the school should give up the money. They’ll also point to Title 1? funds given to schools with high percentages of poor students as the reason why the wealthy public schools should be allowed to raise private funds. When school programs are moved or changed, the private fundraisers argue that they should be able to take their privately funded (for example, musical instruments) with them to the new school. This plan for creating a publicly subsidized, heavily augmented public school works best when your school is small, because it narrows the region from which your school draws students (and, our choice system does not guarantee schools to any student — it depends on distance, so as a school gains popularity, it’s neighborhood can shrink in size).
    Yes, this is an issue that really bothers me.
    (My kid attends private school, and I actually feel more comfortable with the iniquities there — we’re not taxpayer subsidized than in availing myself of a neighborhood school where the PTA raises 300K and then argues loudly to keep the school small, ie. exclude other children from the school).

  6. bj Says:

    Like Jen, I’ve noticed the auction mom culture. There’s actually a pair of books (which I recommend) themed around this culture — Mrs. Perfect/Odd Mom Out, by Jane Porter. I don’t begrudge the auction moms — I think they do useful work, and that the work provides an important social/intellectual need for them.
    But I think it’s important for schools not to feed into the culture themselves too much with the choices they make. The moms really are doing something for the school (and yes, in our school there are some dads, too). That work should be rewarded, but there should be opportunities for other contributions, and they should be supported, too. Otherwise, as Jen points out, the culture spreads to the children themselves, creating in and out cliques among the kids based on whether their moms are part of the right culture or not.
    That’s part of the theme of Odd Mom Out. Odd Mom’s daughter wants to join the in clique, and can’t, because her mom isn’t in the auction mom clique. The story gets more complicated (and less predictable) from there, but the premise is interesting.
    I notice this being a much bigger deal with girls, but that might just be because I have a girl.

  7. MRR Says:

    There are two issues this brings up with me. I definitely feel that this undermines school equality. I know asking for donations has become a widely accepted way to raise money but it’s gone to far, schools should be publicly funded without extra donations.
    I also can’t help but feel like schools and teachers are letting themselves being taken advantage because it’s a profession largely dominated by women. It’s just not appropriate to be paying out of pocket for office supplies for your workplace.

  8. Amy Says:

    This is an issue I struggle with all the time. The college students I teach mostly went to schools where the PTA, if there was one, focused on providing shoes and underwear and clothes for students in need. My kids, on the other hand, are at a public school where just the auction alone raises about $50,000, and there are many other fundraisers, too. Because of this, there’s a full-time music teacher and other extras.
    Now, we’re in California, so the “extras” are things like library books and a little money for field trips. But the inequities are real, and I don’t see a way out of them in the foreseeable future.
    Charter and magnet schools and the general preference for school choice around here exacerbate the problem. The only kids left at struggling schools are the ones whose parents can’t, for whatever reasons, get them to another school. Maybe they can’t drive them there, don’t know how to research schools and apply for them (internet access is key here), etc.

  9. Jennifer Says:

    The elementary my son attends is tremendously overcrowded: 900 kids in K-5. With that caveat, our PTA is one of the largest in the state & raises $75K a year, more or less. I never thought of the community as especially wealthy — most people don’t own 2nd homes; they don’t spend summers in France — but we’re wealthy enough to donate $ to the school. The PTA does 2 fundraisers and also hosts events which are not considered fundraisers (like a haunted house) but which tend to raise about $5K through food sales etc. The $ goes to much the same programs you describe.
    In Oregon the school year is likely to be shortened by 5 days and there’s nothing the PTA can do about that, so I don’t really buy the inequality argument. $75K doesn’t change anything essential.

  10. jim Says:

    It’s been a long time (my youngest is now 24), so, even if I could remember the details, they’d probably not be useful.
    There were differences across the Alexandria system between schools. Our school (MacArthur) had a fairly active PTA. I don’t think the concrete stuff it bought with the money it raised made much difference. But there was one item in each year’s budget which did: Principal’s Discretionary Fund. My guess is that having a slush fund that she didn’t have to account for to the central office made the principal’s life much much easier. Instead of worrying about whether she’d run out of paper, she could worry about whether the classrooms were working.

  11. Jennifer Says:

    Here in Australia (in a very nice area, where most children go to private high schools), I also worry about the inequities of school fundraising. Our schools are funded across the state as a whole, so there aren’t as many school district inequities as you seem to have. But the extras depend on the student body.
    We raised $100,000 last year (650 children K-6) which was spent on funding more of a reading recovery teacher (2.5 days a week above the 0.5 days the department funded), 2 days of a gifted and talented teacher for pullout classes, and as many “smart boards” (whiteboards that connect to a computer as could be raised. About $10,000 of it was on consumables (not paper, but other things like it in a classroom – pencils, folders, that kind of thing). The fundraising came from begging letters to parent with a suggestion fo $350 per child – not popular, but we raise more money than most other schools in our area, which use the fete/auction/ chocolate sale approach, which involves much more effort from a small group of volunteer parents.
    One year the money was spent on a whole extra teacher, which meant that all class sizes were reduced slightly. My Yr 4 boy has 34 kids in his class this year, which is unusually big.
    The parents of the 3-6 children who choose to participate (about 60%) body also separately fund a band teacher, instruments etc, which costs another $400 or so a year if you add up all the various costs.
    Oh, and I don’t think there are any schools which fund lunches for poor kids (even in the poor areas). I’ve often wondered whether its a cold climate thing, because nobody eats hot meals in the middle of the day here. Every now and again, someone will fund breakfast for the seriously poor children, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of funding lunch – odd really.

  12. flea Says:

    My daughter is in K at at Title 1 school in a southern college town. The current school population is 80% minority (black and latino), with about the same % qualifying for free/reduced lunches (not necessarily the same people as in the previous breakdown, but mostly). Last year was the first year there was a PTA at all; they are still finding their feet. They have pulled in a couple of good grants this year – some federal arts thing that provides a curriculum and some materials, and $4000 from Lowe’s to build raised garden beds. Other than that my bet is that the fundraising is less than $2000 a year (they do a 5K race in March which is the main fundraiser). They do help out the school with supplies from that money, and I’m not sure what else (not much, obviously).
    One problem is that, as one might expect, the PTA is pretty much exclusively middle-class parents, and also almost all white. There’s good communication and involvement within that segment of the parent population (list-serv, Facebook) – but what about the majority of the parents not involved in the PTA? I’d love to do something to get *all* the parents involved with the school, but I have no idea how to begin (they do send out paper messages, in English and Spanish, for all PTA events, hold coffees once a month at 7:30am, etc.). Also I work full time, and have a 2 year old; I can barely get to the PTA meetings, much less volunteer to run a membership drive.
    Anyway, “only” 75K in fundraising? Sounds like a lot to me!

  13. Becca Says:

    Here’s what I commented in response to Jackie’s post in response to yours–I think my school and attitude are fairly similar to yours:
    “My kids go to the poorest school in town. I coordinate cultural enrichment, which is funded by the PTO–our largest line item. We bring in plays, dance, science workshops–stuff that many of our kids would never encounter if we didn’t do it. We also fund 5th grade graduation, redecorating the teacher’s room, money for each teacher to spend on extra supplies (or, really, whatever they want), science club, arts & crafts club, the all-school play.
    Yes, it would be dreamy if taxes could pay for all that, but they don’t. And, at this point, they won’t. We’re fighting not to cut teachers–how can I say tax funds should go to the school play instead of teachers? But I want my kids to have a school play–and even more than that, I want the other kids, whose parents can’t afford to sign them up for children’s theater, to have a school play.
    I’m also on the board of our town’s educational foundation. We are funding basically all, yes, ALL, the professional development that is happening in our town this year. Do I wish we didn’t have to exist? Yes. But this is the reality, and I am totally committed to public education.
    Does it piss me off that the rich schools make so much more money than us and want to spend it on new playgrounds? Yes. Do I think the PTOs should pool their funds, at least to some extent? Yes. But there are other ways to create equity–like just that: pooling funds–than just saying we shouldn’t be doing this.”

  14. landismom Says:

    I started to write a comment, but it turned into a whole post–http://landismom.wordpress.com/2009/03/05/economic-woes-part-1/

  15. jen Says:

    Reading Becca’s comment about pooling funds makes me uneasy. As much as I think PTAs can foster inequality, I also think that we basically drive parents out of the public school system when we deprive them of all mechanisms to fix issues directly. It may not be completely fair, but I think in chasing fairness all these years we’ve ended up with a system that simply does not work.
    I look at Burley, and all the families that attend in that building. These are solidly middle-class families who have been able to stay in the city of Chicago because of their ability to fix one big pet issue of theirs: arts funding. These parents are very aware of the issues facing the entire CPS system, they are right there with all the other parents pitching a fit about NCLB, or about Arne Duncan, or what have you. They bring their networks and their resources to bear on the system in general and are helping to improve it. That’s the bottom line. This, in the long run, is a good thing for both CPS and for the city IMHO.
    I guess my overall point is that when we insist on absolute equality, what we *want* is for overall quality to go up to the levels enjoyed by the top rung. But what *actually* happens in many cases is that variance goes down but so does overall quality. This is the undiscussed face of NCLB, for example. That law is designed to decrease gaps between high and low performers. You can meet the law’s requirements by improving the worst performers. Or you can degrade top scores and achieve the same goal. How screwed up is that?

  16. Amy P Says:

    “That law is designed to decrease gaps between high and low performers. You can meet the law’s requirements by improving the worst performers. Or you can degrade top scores and achieve the same goal.”
    I really don’t think that’s how it works. Isn’t the issue more that the focus is on pass rates and states write their own pass requirements, so the temptation is to set the passing scores really low?

  17. Library Lady Says:

    Mine (and it is right near yours in NoVa) has paid for a “sock hop”, a “talent” show (pity anyone who has to sit through 33 acts of other peoples kids to see their own “talented” child) and other events that are as much about the moms having a social life as the kids.
    Since I don’t participate in any of this, having neither time, money nor energy (not to mention the inclination) I am “Odd Mom” and my daughters have not had active social lives at their schools. I regret this, but I can live with it–I’d rather be at home with them at night than at school cutting out little animals for a party!
    The PTA DOES fund class trips and classroom necessities and I think it’s a damned shame that it has to do so. I always think of the bumper sticker about the day when “all schools are fully funded and the Pentagon has to have a bake sale to buy a bomber”.
    And yes, the PTA IS VERY well to do and lily white. And I don’t think they really want it any other way….)

  18. bj Says:

    “Reading Becca’s comment about pooling funds makes me uneasy. As much as I think PTAs can foster inequality, I also think that we basically drive parents out of the public school system when we deprive them of all mechanisms to fix issues directly. ”
    I think the issue is like taxes — yes too much pooling will drive people out, but pooling some of the money can create resources for the less well endowed, while not driving the better endowed out of the system (much the same balance for taxes).
    I think public schools paint themselves in a box when they decide they need to compete with the private schools on their terms to keep middle class families in the system, and do so by creating a diversity of schools within the system that leverage the rich areas into “private” schools while de-leveraging the poor areas into abysmal schools. True, the poor don’t have anywhere to escape. But as a taxpayer (and not a public school user), this is not a solution I like.
    I was surprised when I found out about the level of fundraiser done in my community. I realized, though that it’s one of the side effects of centralized funding. In WA, there’s limited ability to raise local taxes for school funding, since the majority of public school funds come from the state. So, you get private fund raising, because the state as a whole won’t increase the level of services. I think it also comes with school choice/charter schools, too, all attempts to create a pseudo-private tax-payer funded system. Yes, I dislike those things, too.

  19. kathy a. Says:

    there is an article in the LAtimes today: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-lopez8-2009mar08,0,6906485.column

  20. K Says:

    Flea, our school has very similar demographics to yours (although we aren’t at 80% yet – closer to 70%).
    When I read comments like some of these, I sometimes think I’m living in a completely different universe. PTA cliques? Auction Mom Culture? Really???? My lord, how nice it would be to have those problems instead of the ones we are grappling with. (Or maybe not? I’m not sure I would survive in a culture in which there was a social hierarchy in the PTA!)
    Our PTA has just as many men as women in it. Although we don’t seem to attract much income/racial diversity into the leadership core group, the PTA meetings are very representative of the school. We only have 4 meetings a year and we serve a free meal. We also have translators and translation equipment at the meetings. It has taken me a while to get used to speaking while my words are translated simultaneously into 2 languages! I’d say we get 70-80 people at each meeting.
    We raise about $10K a year, but we don’t do any product fundraisers. We do an auction and solicit area businesses/parents for direct donations. We spend our money on field trips, classroom supplies and food.
    I’d love to live in a world where the PTA funded true extras and the school could budget for all of their other supplies with tax dollars. But half the kids in our school live in poverty. Not “Oh, I had to cancel cable” poverty – but “don’t have enough to eat” poverty. For schools like ours, the problem goes way beyond school funding and the tax system. The problem is poverty.
    I believe that the latest statistics show that 18% of American children are living in poverty. Because of the way we live in our country, it is not spread out equally – we don’t have 18% levels in each school. Some schools have 1%. Some schools have 10%. Flea’s school has 80%. Mine has 70%. Even in my own city, it is not spread equally. (And you should have heard the kicking and screaming when the school board introduced the concept of boundary changes to balance out the poverty levels throughout the district…but that’s another post for another day.)

  21. bj Says:

    “Even in my own city, it is not spread equally. (And you should have heard the kicking and screaming when the school board introduced the concept of boundary changes to balance out the poverty levels throughout the district…but that’s another post for another day.)”
    Yeah. My moment of truth came when I ranked all the elementary schools in my school district by what percent were available for free lunch. I thought (and still mostly think) that my city is progressive and believes in the common good. So, I was shocked when I realized that the proportion of poor children in our schools ranges from 3% to 95%. And, yes, my neighborhood school was the 3%. I simply didn’t know. We do not have boundaries in our school district — crow-flies distance determines access to “popular” schools. But, there is a plan in the works to define boundaries. I believe that the school administration is motivated by a desire to balance these poverty levels. They won’t be able to do it perfectly, but I do think my city will tolerate many schools with 30-40% poor children, the average across the school district. So, I actually have hopes that chagnes will be made with only a bit of kicking and screaming.

  22. urbanartiste Says:

    I had been wanting to comment on this post for a while and now that I am about to be in a PTA thought I would wait. First of all, I am not really comfortable with a group of parents with time to donate in charge of school decisions and money. I would rather have my taxes raised and have the school district hire someone with experience to run the fundraising. I have heard stories of how petty things in my soon-to-be PTA become and the nonchalance in dealing with the money. Not everyone is like that, but it generally gives PTA a bad reputation.
    Now that I have actually been assigned committees, which I volunteered for, I am in a bit of shock at the time I will have to devote and the serious nature of the fundraising involved. My gut reaction is, “What if all women worked?” Some women and men love to be involved in PTAs, but I am a little resentful to all the free labor mainly women are providing. It is one thing not to be paid to have children, stay at home to raise them, or even get social security benefits to do so. But the work that women do for free in schools is unreal and underappreciated.

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