When Susan Moesker’s son started sixth grade five years ago at Boerum Hill School for International Studies in Brooklyn, there was no active PTA. The school, she said, “has a wonderful and diverse student body,” which Moesker loved, but not all of the parents could afford to donate extra time and money to the school.
“We have families who have tremendous ability to give, and we have families who have no ability to give whatsoever,” she said.
So Moesker and other parents who could banded together, and through bake sales and chili cook-offs, raised about $800 that first year. The group stayed active, grew an executive board and reported $6,585 in revenue in 2016, according to its latest tax return available on Guidestar. But while the momentum was upward, the receipts remained modest.
So a couple of years ago, the PTA decided to spring for a gala — the type of fundraiser you might see at nearby P.S. 261, which raised almost $900,000 in 2016, or at P.S. 58, which raised $1.4 million, through a combination of donations, grants, and services parents pay for at the school, according to Guidestar.
Moesker’s PTA was able to secure a venue for free, and the gala and silent auction raked in about $36,000 last year. With the help of corporate matching of some parents’ direct donations, the PTA expects to pull in $83,580 this year, according to its online budget projection. While this is significantly more than the average $1,000 city PTAs raise, according to one city official, it’s still well below the million-dollar budgets of the richest PTAs.
It’s natural for parents to want to fill in perceived gaps in resources in their children’s classrooms. But since many public school parents can’t afford to donate large sums of money, the powerhouse PTAs are contributing to the already vast divide between wealthy and needy schools — a longstanding problem that is coming under new scrutiny.
Last month, the New York City Council passed a bill requiring the Department of Education to publish by December 2019 an annual report on how much each parent-teacher association or parent association is raising.
Although the education department already collects this information through each school’s principal, it is not posted anywhere for the public to see, says Councilman Mark Treyger, who sponsored the bill and is the chairman of the council’s education committee.
The bill requires the department to post the report on its website, deliver it to the council’s speaker and provide demographic information about the student population — race, ethnicity, English learner status — at each PTA’s school.
By making the data more accessible, Treyger says, he hopes to launch an informed conversation about how the city might address the “glaring disparities” that arise from the PTA Haves and Have Nots.
“I don’t believe your zip code should dictate the opportunities you receive,” he said in a recent interview.
What other cities are doing
Treyger’s bill isn’t the first time New York — or other cities — have wrestled with questions of fairness surrounding PTA funds, which schools may use to pay assistant teachers, fund electives or sponsor after-school programs.
In 1997, for example, parents at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village learned that one of the school’s teaching positions was being eliminated. Parents rallied, raising $36,000 almost overnight, nearly enough to cover the $46,000-salary of the teacher being ousted. Then schools Chancellor Rudy Crew blocked the parents’ effort and ordered a moratorium on similar PTA moves, saying it wasn’t fair to schools that didn’t have the same resources.
Today, regulations set by the Chancellor govern how parent associations can operate, including what they can spend their money on and what financial disclosures they have to make. For example, PTAs can’t pay for additional teachers in core subjects.
But inequities persist. At P.S. 334 The Anderson School on the Upper West Side, the PTA is already advertising and soliciting donations for its 27th annual auction next March. Suggestions for donated items range from $25 gift cards to $10,000 vacations. In 2015, the PTA reported revenue of close to $1 million, according to Guidestar and was ranked in 2013 as the country’s 10th richest PTA in a report by the Center for American Progress, a progressive advocacy group.
The parent organization at P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side showed revenue of more than $900,000 in its latest filing and is the 16th richest in the country, according to the same report. Its website suggests an annual donation of $1,200 — though also states “any amount your family is able to give” is welcome. The money helps fund assistant teachers for every classroom, performing arts programs, school-wide supplies, special programs and staff development among other expenses, according to the website’s breakdown.
To address this disparity, Councilman Stephen T. Levin loosely floated the idea, at the hearing on Treyger’s City Council bill, of a progressive taxation system, in which PTAs or PAs might donate a chunk of their raised revenue above a certain level — such as $100,000 or $200,000 — but didn’t say exactly where the money would go. Levin acknowledged, however, that such a tax would be “a pretty serious step” and wondered what other cities are doing.
The answer is that some are already experimenting with ways to make PTA giving more equitable. In the Santa Monica-Malibu school system, parents can donate directly to their schools if it’s to beautify the campus or sponsor field trips. But if parents want to pay for teachers’ salaries or school-day programs, they must also donate to another pool of money that’s then redistributed to needier schools.
In Portland, a central foundation collects one-third of the proceeds any school raises above $10,000. So for every dollar past this mark, 33 cents go toward equity grants that are delivered to the district’s under-resourced schools.
It’s not clear in New York City whether rules governing PTAs and PAs would permit donations to other schools or efforts to compel gifts to other organizations. To be legal, PTAs would likely have to adopt clear disclaimers, stating if or when donations could be redirected, said Cliff Perlman, an attorney with New York-based firm Perlman and Perlman, which specializes in non-profit legal matters.
“You’re giving money to an entity and expecting” it to be used “a certain way,” Perlman said. The recipient “is supposed to honor that intent or not take the money.”
Others worry parents will be less inclined to donate if the money isn’t going to benefit their children, resulting in a smaller philanthropic pie for everyone.
And in Malibu, fury over the district’s plan to share PTA funds between the Santa Monica and Malibu schools fueled a desire among some Malibu parents to separate from the district. It still includes both communities but has agreed to establish separate fundraising models.
A voluntary approach — for now
Ben Arthur, a former parent at P.S. 87, the William T. Sherman School on the Upper West Side, said the “blamey-shamey” critiques that wealthier PTAs sometimes weather are unfair.
“These are rational people who are being faced with schools that are being underfunded comically, criminally, by the state,” he said. “It’s really not the fault of P.S. 87 parents that they’re being put in a position to fill these massive gaps.” In 2016, the school’s PTA pulled in more than $1.8 million in combined donations and programs that parents directly pay for, according to Guidestar.
Abigail Edgecliffe-Johnson, another parent at the school, says its auction and fairs are so successful because parents not only can donate more money than parents at other schools but also have the time to devote to planning events and have access to high-value items to put up for bid. Parents who work on Broadway might donate tickets to hot shows, and Arthur, through his connections to the music industry, once secured a three-hour recording session at a local studio for auction.
At the same time, “It is not fair that we are all in public schools, but our school has the ability to fill those shortfalls,” Edgecliffe-Johnson said.
So in 2015, she and Arthur co-founded School 2 School, which raises money for schools in District 7, a needy district in the Bronx. Last May, a Bronx elementary school teacher turned to School 2 School when she needed art supplies for her students. She wanted them to illustrate stories they’d written, but she didn’t have sketch pads, crayons and glue sticks for her students to use. She filed a $690 request on School 2 School, and four months later it was granted, along with another $122 to help finance other activities.
School 2 School has raised $18,814 and funded 40 projects over the past three years, according to its website.
“Your generosity provided my students with essential resources to inspire them to do their best writing,” she wrote in a thank-you comment on the fundraising page.
But some contend that concern about PTAs is just another way to avoid addressing more fundamental inequities and divides.
Marco Battistella, a public school parent who just finished a two-year term as co-chair of the Chancellor Parent Advisory Council, said that the composition of the city’s PTAs and their ability to fundraise usually come down to a school’s demographics, and ultimately to economic integration in schools.
“Yes, there are in fact some schools that raise significant amounts of money and many schools —a majority of schools — they raise very little money,” Battistella said. But “the way to go,” he said, “is to make sure that the demographics in the school are more equally distributed.”
“To be blunt,” he said in written testimony over Treyger’s bill, “no number of bake sales will ever cancel the ill effects of continued systemic underfunding of NYC’s public schools by the state government.”