New Model for Many Public Schools is Private Fundraising

Public schools across America are substantially underfunded these days, whether in Everett or Abington, Pa., but some public schools – such as in Abington – are looking to the model of private fundraising rather than public fights to fill the gaps in school budgets.

It’s a model as old as the hills for Catholic Schools and private schools – as well as public charter schools – but having galas, private fundraisers and capital campaigns hasn’t been commonplace in the nation’s public schools. Now, however, as schools like Everett struggle to make ends meet, many are turning to successful alumni, local corporations and private foundations to make things equal out.

That’s the story last week for the Abington (Pennsylvania) School District who told the dramatic story of receiving a $25 million gift from Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman – a very successful graduate of the school district.

Supt. Amy Sichel told the Independent that the relationship with Schwartzman began 10 years ago when the schools were looking to build a new football stadium and multi-purpose gym. The bids were $5 million, and they had a maximum of $4 million.

“We needed another $1 million and in my naïve self, I thought that we should start a capital campaign, and that’s what I did to raise the money,” she said. “We started a non-profit foundation and went out and approached it like it was development money. We raised $1 million and got a donation form Stephen. I approached him for a huge chunk of money, made the ask, and he more than willingly agreed. After that, he kind of became a partner with the school district.”

That was the beginning of what might become a new model in the way schools approach shortfalls.

While the Foundation continued to raise about $100,000 per year for some extras, Sichel said the big moment came about three years ago when the schools needed to renovate and expand their 1950s-era high school. The district could afford about $75 million, but they needed much more to do everything they wanted, such as expanding the cafeteria and making space to bring the ninth grade back from the middles schools.

She turned to Schwarzman for advice, and they discussed the vision, the need for a change in what was being taught. Both agreed that kids needed to be taught not just how to use a computer, also how to program a computer no matter what they intended to do as a career.

Beyond that, they began discussing how to fill the gaps in the budget.

Schwarzman asked if they were reaching out to alumni and corporations. Along with that came the $25 million donation, which was quite a surprise.

The bigger story, Sichel said, was how he began to ask why public schools don’t approach funding gaps like private schools or non-profits – with large campaigns among supporters.

“The better story with all of this is he asked me why people who have graduated from a public school and done well for themselves aren’t doing the same thing he did,” she said. “He asked why all public schools aren’t reaching out to those that went there before in the hopes that maybe they might want to give back. He felt every school district should be gathering lists of alumni, starting non-profit foundations and finding benefactors for new uniforms, benefactors for instruments and benefactors for computers. I told him I couldn’t answer that question as to why they don’t. He said he felt like school districts across the country should be doing this, practicing how to ask for the money like I did, and then making the ask.”

Sichel said she never asked him for money for the operating budget, but only for the expansion project. However, she said other schools might find a benefactor to protect teachers, or to prevent layoffs in a tight budget year.

All in all, Sichel – who has been superintendent there for 42 years – learned that asking supporters for help is not wrong for a public school.

“A big thing to keep in mind is people don’t have to give you $25 million, but if people give you small gifts on an annual basis, then those items can be used for other things and  not take away from the operating budget. Then you can buy those things like uniforms from another revenue source and then you might be able to spend more money to keep those teachers.”

Sichel and Schwarzman told the story last week at the National Conference on Education to thousands of teachers and administrators from public schools. Sichel said the buzz at the conference was all about taking that idea and implementing it immediately.

“That’s the message here this week, that people who went to public schools can be asked to give back,” she said. “That is really big now.”

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