Saturday, March 29, 2008

From "Our Children", the National PTA Magazine

I got my copy of Our Children in the mail the other day (they send it to PTA leaders but I'm sure anyone can get one). They have many good articles and there was a lengthy one about the WA State PTA's efforts to pass Simple Majority. But there were a couple of article that sort of cancelled each other out and made me wonder about what is happening at other schools.

The first article was about a PTA in an elementary school in Portland. The article was about how 96% of the school's parent base and entire staff are communicating online via a free, private social networking platform. So all communication - the PTA directory, back-to-school packets, newsletters - is all online. (It's a little unclear but I assume hardcopies are available. However, their weekly newsletter is only available online.) Also, there are online discussions about school improvement, curriculum, etc. with parents and teachers.

So my first point is the issue of going all e-mail/online for communications. That in itself seems a little elitist. I have had this discussion with more than one school because the district (and the schools) want to believe that EVERYONE has e-mail and/or access to a computer. It is not so even in technology-savvy Seattle (and yes, I do get the irony of me saying this on a blog). What about that 4% of parents in that school who are virtually excluded?

On the other hand, it is saving the PTA thousands of dollars in postage AND saving the environment. That's no small thing.

Then there's an article, a good one, called Let's Make Sure ALL Parents Feel Welcome. Now we can all differ in what we feel good about when we walk into a school versus what is off-putting. This article details how even good efforts might not be good for everyone especially when you are trying to reach parents who don't speak English well or don't understand American school systems or having school events that may pose unintentional barriers to participation by all families.

For example, one school had an auction where the tickets were $25. Okay, so it is not possible to hold an event like this without charging something. But then, the article went on to say that it was held at the principal's brother's mansion which he had graciously donated for the evening. So then you create perhaps an even larger number of people who might not go, not just for the cost but because they may not have proper attire or feel out of place. From the article:

"But couldn't the same amount (of money) have been raised by an event appealing to a broader base? A broader base of support gives more peoplein the community a sense of ownership in the school and its mission and avoids the appearance of elitism."

So what is elitism in fundraising? Does it matter?

The other issue, which has raised its anonymous head here again and again, is the issue of fundraising. And I believe some of the fundraising efforts in this district relate directly to class. It is a struggle to not have these auctions which can raise so much money for the school (and, in the end, all the kids benefit from them) but are people feeling left out? Are there parents who feel quietly humiliated on the Monday after an event when others are talking about how fun the auction was or how much they spent? Many classes make items that are then auctioned off. What if you didn't even get the chance to see the object your child worked on? (In my son's 3rd grade class they made a huge serving plate with drawing of a cat depicting each child. The mom who won it generously lent it to any family who wanted it for a week so that everyone could see it.)

But many families never show up for any events even if they are held at the school. Should we assume that there are parents who really don't care one way or another and are grateful that there are parents out there who do raise the money?

Also, if your school raises a lot of money, do you feel like the staff/teachers take your efforts for granted or as a given because that's the way it's always been? Does your PTA get a public thank-you from teachers and staff for your efforts?

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting topics Melissa.

When our child began attending AEII seven years ago the auction was very low key, and relaxed. The auction committee rented a hall, but tickets were free (part of the inclusive nature of the school), and it was a potluck. Parent volunteers were our auctioneers, and there was no dress code. It was meant to be a fund raiser but also a social event. The themes were fun and light hearted! Attendance rates were very high. Over the years I saw the auction change. The first change was deciding to sell tickets, they started at $10, then $20, and now I hear it's up to $40. It is now a catered formal event with a professional auction planner and auctioneer. The goal is to make as much money as possible. The auction has a lower attendance rate now, though they do make more money (but not much).

Sadly, it doesn't seem fun anymore, it just feels like another fund raising obligation.

Shoreline schools send all of their PTA correspondence via email, but then of course every middle and high school student in Shoreline gets a laptop from their school. The important notices (like report cards coming home today) are sent via a recorded phone message from the principal and are sent to all families. Hopefully, we all have phones.

Anonymous said...

The point of a fundraiser is to, uhhhh, raise funds. So the higher the ticket price, the better... so long as people actually pay it and attend. Many auctions have a ticket price of around $75 or more. The auction (and any other fundraiser) is NOT a social, a tea, or anything else. Let's get real here. If you can't afford to attend, don't. That's perfectly ok... but you should be grateful that others ARE attending and paying and raising money for the school. No point in saving seats for people who aren't or can't contribute financially.

Anonymous said...

Funny thing is by the time the fund raising team calculated costs for catering, professional auctioneer, and professional auction consultants, they only made slightly more than the years it was an informal, inclusive, pot luck, social event/auction.

I guess it's just all what you prefer. There were a lot of parents that shared anonymous aboves opinion, but there were many who liked the low key approach too. Attendance was also much much higher when it was low key, I guess it was less intimidating for the families that didn't have a lot of money to spend at the auction, couldn't afford tickets, or didn't have formal attire??

I loved the inclusive nature of the school, and it saddens me to see the community gentrifying (housing prices going up = less hippies and more middle and upper income families). Couple this with the NEED to fund raise just to keep your head above water, and it's all a bit disheartening.

Anonymous said...

Well, yea sure, the point of an auction is to raise money. Is it worth it though if it contributes to families not feeling part of their own school community? That is not an insignificant issue.

We used to go to our school auction every year, both to have a good time with friends and to give monetary support. Last year we didn't go - the tickets were $40 each and we cannot afford any of the live auction items.

Made we wonder how families who cannot participate in these events feel. Maybe they don't care and they are glad that other people are spending money for school.

But maybe they feel alienated and that they don't "fit in" and that affects kids too. I don't think it's healthy for schools to just blow off class issues and assume it's not worth considering.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous at 8:47, your comments are elitist and just plain insensitive.

To say that if someone doesn't have the money they should just stay home, and be glad other people go and do it for them is actually sickening to me.

maureen said...

So what should we do? I wouldn't be surprised to hear that some families feel priced out of our auction ($40 per ticket this year). But our committee works VERY hard to keep costs down (they beg for underwriting and donations of food & beverages & hold it in a glorified gym in the International District with minimal decor and no dress code). The ticket price covers the costs so that all proceeds go to the bottom line (about $100K). If you volunteer to work the event (bar tend, do registration, whatever...) you can get in for free. That actually feels a little weird to me, but most volunteers buy a ticket anyway and there's no way to tell if you did, so that seems ok.

We use that money to pay for services for all of the kids--we have no fees for drama, science or sports and have scholarships for every other school activity (languages, math, chess...). We pay for extra reading teachers, recess supervision, tutoring...all of the things SPS sees as 'extra.'

We pride ourselves on being an inclusive school, but if we didn't hold this 'exclusive' auction then some kids would be excluded from all of the 'extras' the fundraising pays for. I have had conversations with middle class parents who think it's morally wrong to donate to public schools--the state should be covering it--but then their kid is in the school play or goes on a subsidized camping trip...that kind of makes me crazy.

Personally, I love the auction--it's a fun community building event. I don't spend very much, but I'm thrilled to see other people open their check books to help all of the kids at the school. We all try to help our school in what ever way is possible for us. I see the auction as an opportunity for those who have money resources to share with those who don't.

Anonymous said...

I love the idea Maureen spoke of where if you volunteer at the auction you get in free! It gives people who might not otherwise be able to go a way to attend and save face too! The other idea that I always liked was a pay as you wish for tickets. I bet in the end you would wind up making a whole lot more money than with a set ticket price, as people with the means will probably write some hefty checks, while people without the means can pay what they could afford. My guess is in the end you would make more money than a set ticket price, and it would be inclusive and welcoming to all!

Of course, the main reason for an auction is to make money, as much money as you can, but that goal is not disrupted by having an inclusive, welcoming auction. Allowing a handful of people without the means to attend and OMG, have a free dinner, shouldn't hurt the big pot in the end, and if it does, supplement the catering with a dessert or salad potluck. There is something to be said about fostering a community, and welcoming everyone, and you can do this without loosing focus of the bottom line.

Anonymous said...

There's absolutely no reason schools can't do both. You can have the fun potlucks... AND have the fundraising events whose point is to make as much money as possible. The funny thing about that is, people still cry about not affording the tickets, or the item prices. I'm always shocked by the lack of charitable giving in Seattle, and complaining about school donations is just one example.

Anonymous said...

To anon at 8:24 -

It's a class issue and not just that folks don't want to make charitable dontations.

At many schools the live auction items go for hundreds and thousands of dollars. Many of the
silent auction items are pricey too. What might be a well spent charitable donation to you could easily be out of reach for someone else.

The one part of our school auction that I really like is "Fund an Item". The school chooses ahead of time what project or item the money will go to and then at the auction one can bid whatever amount they'd like, even just $20.

I like another idea posted on this thread about having auction ticket prices be pay as you wish rather than a set price.

Anonymous said...

The issue of elitism/auctions came up at our school. Concerns were about the big kid art projects that are the things that bring in a lot of $$. Some parents felt priced out. What the planners did was have raffle tix sold, that way the winner could pick any live auction item (incl kid art stuff) and walk away with it. Also parents have had success with duplicating neat pics into posters (after auction) so other parents could buy. Also were many, many low to medium price objex for silent auction. Planners held it in a gym that lots of people worked to decorate, made it feel fun and inclusive. I was priced out of lots and lots but I had a blast. If it's not fun watching people spend $$, don't come, but most people enjoy the spectacle!

Anonymous said...

My family is about at the median for income in Seattle, and we are no longer able to afford the tickets to the auctions. The times I went I realized part way through that I was not going to be able to contribute significantly (the most I could say is that I'd helped bid up items to a higher level before dropping out), so my meal price had really been wasted. It would have been better for me to stay home and send the ticket price as a straight donation. That did make me feel pretty weird.

Another organization we are involved in has given up on auctions as they take too much volunteer time and everyone gets burned out. They do have a fancy party, though, which we can't afford to go to either.

It seems to me that in origin the auctions were intended to include some items going below their true value (as happens at real auctions), but now everything is priced up to far beyond, which to me ruins the point. I mean, I *already* can't go on luxury vacations, I certainly can't afford to pay double the usual price for a weekend in a resort somewhere.

Anonymous said...

Maureen-
You are absolutely right that the real issue is how woefully underfunded SPS are and that this is what causes the need for these types of fund raisers. I’m glad that you had fun at your auction, but I was struck by your comment that your auction is “a fun community building event.” Is it really community-building if it disenfranchises a portion of the community?

I can’t speak to the specifics of your school. At my son’s school, less that 40% of the families bought tickets to or participated in the auction. The event netted the school about $40,000, and while that money was badly needed for special programs, I wonder if, as Mel mentioned in her original post, that money could have been raised in a way that would have affected a larger section of the community. I know that $40,000 isn’t that much for these events, and some schools raise 6 figures. In those cases, I doubt that the money could be raised through other functions.

After two years, I stopped going to or participating in my child’s school auctions. I write a check for $500 and get a donation from my employer and call it good. I know that other people like it, but the fact is that my husband and I have very few nights out together in a year, and frankly I’d have a lot more fun just going to the movies.

There are certainly ways to make auctions more welcoming or inclusive (for example, potluck instead of catered, gym instead of a more elegant venue, casual instead of black tie). The debate I always hear, and agree with, is that people are more likely to spend the big bucks if they feel that they are at something really special. If you have a nice meal and a few glasses of wine and are wearing your diamond earrings, you are probably more likely to spend $2000 on your kid’s class project. But, I disagree with Anon at 8:47 that the purpose of these events is only to raise as much money as possible. A school is not a business. It serves a community. In the end, I think the school benefits more from broader involvement than from ticket sales.

TK

Anonymous said...

I don't see why an auction can't be both a fund raiser AND a community building, social event??

Whey does it have to be one or the other???

If you attend a school that is affluent maybe the black tie, formal event is what your community prefers, and is used to. That's just fine. But if the majority of your school community is middle class or lower middle class, then it should be fine to make the auction affordable and accessible to the community. There is nothing wrong with potlucks, pay as you wish for tickets, raffles for student art, rounding up some talented parent (or student) musicians to entertain, or anything else you can think of.

The steel drum band at Summit k-12 will usually play at your auction for free (or a tip) too.

Lot's of ways to cut costs, and intimidation if need be.

And for the affluent Laurelhurst, View Ridge, McGilvra rock on with your formal black tie events, but for the more middle of the road schools we can be more inclusive, can't we????

Keith said...

@Melissa: can you provide the name of that Portland school? I don't know what the numbers you quoted really mean without reading the article, but my first thought is that 96% family participation is fantastic. I would think that most schools would be THRILLED with that level of participation (without regard for the communications medium). I don't see a vibrant web presence as an inclusion issue, as long as there are accomodations made for all interested parties.

Anonymous said...

View Ridge and Laurelhurst are not black tie events. I wore jeans to the View Ridge Auction and it was held in a community center gym. VR only holds an auction every other year - the rest of the money raised is through other fundraisers and an annual campaign. There was talk about not doing an auction at all anymore since the annual campaign has been successful, but I believe the community wanted the auction because of being a fun social event that brings families together to socialize without children.

We can not afford what many other families could. I felt badly that my child's class project was not being bid on but my husband said no way to bidding on it (it's intro bid was high). I know for a fact that there were bargains/plenty of things that went under market value. I did however appreciate the people who were willing to pay hundreds and in some cases thousands on class art projects. I didn't feel badly that I couldn't bid with them but happy that they were raising money for the school. I also appreciated that there were plenty of gift cards that you could buy at cost ($25 for a $25 gift card to Taco Del Mar as an example) so you could contribute to the school spending money on something you would be spending anyway. Tickets were $40, but you got in free if you volunteered during the auction (exp checking people in, bartender, etc.). Teachers tickets were also heavily discounted and it was great to see so many teachers there!

I agree with previous posters that the fundraising should be geared for the demographics of the school and that the fundrasier should work at including everyone/making it affordable in different ways. There will always be parents who would rather spend their babysitting money on a date night alone at a restaurant or movie and that's okay. I personally enjoyed socializing with lots of parents whom I normally don't socialize with outside of school. Each to their own! As long as there are enough people wanting to attend and participate to raise a decent amount of money for the school and enough volunteers willing to help, then go for it.

Anonymous said...

I like how it's voluntary at my child's school to receive the weekly newsletter and monthly PE newsletter electronically. Every year you opt in via signing up with encouragement of helping the environment and saving on paper costs. Every year the number of people opting away from paper gets higher, but again is voluntary. That's how it is with other organizations as well. I personally love getting news electronically so I can save it on the computer (or look it up on the YAHOO website) rather than adding more clutter that I can't keep up with. It's also great for families with parents at two different homes due to divorce/separation - both parents can easily keep up with the latest going on rather than the parent the child goes home to that evening.

At the same time, there is no requirement so parents who don't have easy computer access or just prefer paper copies can do so. I'd be willing to bet that with some more marketing the percentage of web usage will continue to go up until it reaches 90% or so.

I know of another school that requires an e-mail address/is web only. I haven't heard any complaints, but I'm sure there are some families that it is a struggle for and they must make some kind of accommodations for them.

Melissa Westbrook said...

The name of the elementary school in Portland that the article was about was Ainsworth elementary.

Anonymous said...

Why don't we just have an auction that funds the wants of the people attending (and their children)? That way, if you want a lot of extra goodies, you could go to the auction and pay for them. If you don't, you could stay home and not be pressured into it.

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous who posted "Why don't we just have an auction that funds the wants of the people attending (and their children)?"

I'm not sure if this was a serious comment or not. A lot of the special programs funded by the school are geared toward the most at risk kids and those families who really cannot afford extras in their lives. For example, my PTA funded the art program. Now, my child is very intersted in art and we actually already pay a significant amount for activities outside of school, but I was glad that we were funding it for others because I think art is important for ALL kids, and school art programs are probably more important for kids from lower income backgrounds, because those parents may not be able to pay $60 to take their family to see Roman Art from the Louvre like I just did (which was worth every penny, by the way, but still an expensive family outing).

How I wish our school had an email only/opt-out choice for paper communications. All those newsletters end up in a pile on our kitchen counter. I'm not sure how high the participation rate needs to get before you completely eliminated paper, but 95% sounds pretty good.

-TK

maureen said...

I'm interested in the idea of opting in to electronic communication. Can anyone tell me how much extra work that makes for the teachers? I produce our bi-weekly Go Home letter and I use over 5000 sheets of paper on it a month. I've hesitated to offer an electronic opt out because I thought it would be a pain for the teachers to keep track of who gets them and who doesn't. Also, I have a feeling that lots of people would ask for an electronic version, but never even glance at it. (we do post it on the web site so it is already available for those who go look for it).

I'd be interested in hearing how electronic distribution works in diverse schools. Any info on how your schools deal with translations for ELL families would be welcome as well.

Anonymous said...

"Why don't we just have an auction that funds the wants of the people attending (and their children)?"

Wow, now that's something to think about?? How would we accomplish this??

How would we divvy up the graham crackers at snack time? I suppose only the children whose parents were financially able to support the auction would get the grahams?

And ditto for classroom supplies. But then what would the teachers do with the lower middle class or low income kids who don't receive any supplies? How do they write, erase, glue?? Lot's to think about.

And as for music and art, I suppose they could just have pull outs for the affluent kids, while the less fortunate kids remain in their classrooms and do not get exposed to music or art.

But what about things like gardening? How do you divide that between classes? What about funding teacher training? Of course we could divide entire classrooms between affluent and not so affluent, and only offer the training to these teachers... that might work??

So much to figure out, the possibilities are endless.

I am so proud to live in such a forward thinking city, so innovative. Always finding ways to solve our issues.

How appalling.

Anonymous said...

School auctions were a new thing to us moving here and we have attended all kinds:

(1) auctions run by friends of ours for a small Catholic elementary school that raised $30K-$40K.
(2) Laurelhurst elementary school auctions that raised $80-$100K.
(3) auctions for expensive private schools that raised $80K-$250K.

The simplest way to donate to in any of these auctions was the 'fund-an-item', but in most of the auctions this item would seem of dubious value for the school.

With $100 tickets and catered food, auction (3) just involved excess and self-centeredness.

Tickets to (2) were the cheapest at $12 for a salmon dinner on paper plates and were the only casual kind. They were very friendly and had great involvement of the teachers, raising money for the PTA to half fund a teaching position that allowed the school to keep a popular junior teacher. Nonetheless, despite the great result, I felt that there was something awkward. There was a competitive aspect: Who is going to spend more on their kids?...like the parents bidding over $2K for weekend babysitting by another popular junior teacher.

Despite a level of formality and $30-$40 tickets, the small Catholic school auction seemed the least awkward, and not because it was run by friends. It was because the kids were involved in serving and cooking the dinner and the people at the auction were not just parents spending on their own kids; they included parishioners from the church who wanted to help out.

School auctions tend too much to be parents showing off how much they support their own kids and tend not to involve the kids doing anything. Unfortunately, it only takes a few people out of a large crowd to create this atmosphere and I can see how if can put people off.

Anonymous said...

We are a middle class family and just don't have much money to spend at the auction. The way I get around this is to buy stuff from the silent auction (at or near cost) that I would use anyway. Gym memberships, car tune up, gift certificate to our favorite family restaurant....once I even bought my son (a much needed) new bike at the auction!

We usually spend $300 or so at the auction but try to only purchase things we would purchase anyway, and were usually able to get them at face value or cost (without tax).

Besides not having to pay sales tax for the items we purchase, we also get a tax break when we do our Federal taxes!!!

Anonymous said...

Anon at 8:25 -- if you are buying items at face value or less, you don't get a tax break. Your charitable contribution is the amount you spend in excess of received value. If you like a tax break, Fund-an-item is the way to go. You can declare 100% of that.

Melissa Westbrook said...

So I did ask at the end of my post and I'm still wondering:
What feedback (thanks, acknowledgment) does your PTA get for fundraising? Or do you ever feel it is taken for granted?

Anonymous said...

Melissa-

In general I think that the teachers are individually very grateful for the efforts of parents in the school, but I've never received (or asked for) any formal appreciation. I haven't really ever thought about it in those terms. We spend a lot of time thanking and supporting the teachers for doing such a good job with our kids.

The principal does sponsor a volunteer luncheon to thank the PTA. But it was to thank both Parents and Teachers from the administration.

maureen said...

Melissa: I don't expect to receive formal thanks from the teachers for the fundraising we do. We're doing it for all of the kids, some of them are our own--we're not just doing it to make the teachers' lives easier. Also, some of the biggest money raisers at our auction are the teacher activiities (hikes, baseball games, gym parties...) so the teachers are contributing as well as the parents. That said, I think the teachers are grateful and often express how lucky they feel (as do the parents and even the kids sometimes!).

We have had kids make thank you cards for businesses and individuals who donate big things to be auctioned. That seems appropriate.

Someone mentioned including the kids in the auction, that makes me feel a little uncomfortable because then kids would know which parents spent alot and might go back to school and talk about it. We have High School age alumni come back and serve dinner: they get community service hours, we reduce our costs and it lets more of the committee members sit down and enjoy dinner.

Anonymous said...

Our principals have expected all the teachers and classrooms to participate. I can see that a few of my child's teachers have not cared on whit about participating (not that I blame them). For at least one of my child's teacher, her effort was minimal, and she wasn't particularly appreciative of any efforts. Other teachers have been totally into it... and have strongarmed parents into donating, making class projects, etc.