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Wednesday, October 30, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Schools look to parents for more money

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

It has come to this: Parents buying teachers.

The latest twist is occurring on Mercer Island, where an elementary school plans to host a communitywide auction this spring. The goal: $200,000 to hire one teacher's aide per grade level.

In Issaquah — the only Eastside district that allows parents to donate money for certified teachers as well as teacher aides — parents at two elementary schools have raised money for two part-time certified teachers in the second year of a new parent giving policy.

While parents have long pitched in for special things in the classroom — art supplies, field trips, computers — paying for teachers and aides has taken parent support to a new level.

As districts struggle with budget cuts, some schools are finding that parents are willing to donate significant amounts of cash if they believe it will improve their child's education.

"Washington state education funding is just abysmal, and nobody will do it for us, so we have to do it ourselves," said Mercer Island parent Ronna Weltman.

The practice started years ago in a few districts, including Bellevue, where parents at five elementary schools and two secondary schools have raised money to hire teacher aides for the past seven years.

PTAs in the Seattle School District have also bought certified teachers and teacher assistants for several years.

But the education funding picture is putting new emphasis on the effort. This year, 17 states faced reductions in their budgets for elementary and secondary education, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

It's still mostly schools in wealthier neighborhoods that are able to raise money for staff members, but others have begun to launch similar efforts.

The PTA at Eastgate Elementary School, which is in a low- to middle-income Bellevue neighborhood, raised about $11,000 last year, enough so that Eastgate Elementary Principal Tracy Maury could hire a part-time reading specialist.

Maury said it's tough when some schools are able to raise more money for materials and staff than others. However, some schools that bring in a lot at fund-raisers give a portion of the money to the Bellevue Schools Foundation, which supports programs and materials at all schools.

"There are inequities in the district and people know about them, but when PTAs are able to support other schools, too, everyone benefits in the long run, and it teaches the community a lesson about partnerships," Maury said.

Medina Elementary PTA typically raises more than $200,000 at its annual fall walk-a-thon and spring auction. It gives to the foundation and to three Medina PTA priorities: teacher aides, technology and curriculum development. "We don't buy a lot of stuff like playground equipment. Our funding goes to supporting teachers and improving academics," said Medina PTA co-president Liz Spiezle.

Critics of individual school fund raising say it's not fair that parents at schools in wealthier neighborhoods can afford to buy more computers, books and now, teachers, than at other schools. Supporters counter that wealthier schools have some of the same needs but receive far less in federal and state money aimed at helping disadvantaged students.

Mercer Island School District, which serves this small, wealthy community, passed a policy last year governing parent donations to pay for more staff. The district does the hiring, typically one-year contracts.

Island Park, one of Mercer Island's three elementary schools, was the first school to test the policy. It hosted a parent dessert fund-raiser last year and came away with $82,000. That amount hired just over three teacher aides this school year.

"Teachers said they needed more help, more hands in the classroom, and that's what we were able to do from the generosity of parents and the PTA," said Principal Kathy Morrison.

In studying how to improve student achievement last year, Morrison and a team of teachers and parents found that several Washington schools elsewhere in the state with similar demographics but better test scores had something in common: PTAs raised money annually for more staff members.

So Island Park staff and parents decided to pilot an auction to raise more money to double the number of aides next year. Ideally, four teachers at each grade level will share one aide, Morrison said.

Parent Ronna Weltman, who is helping to organize the auction, said she hopes it catches on at the island's other schools.

"Teacher salaries are bleak and the cost of living is so high here," she said. "By giving teachers additional staff, they have more help and hopefully it will reduce hours for them."

In Seattle, where layoffs of teacher aides is likely in light of the district's recently discovered $34 million shortfall, the role of parents and PTAs in helping to bridge that gap raises questions of equity, said Seattle PTSA Council President Joanna Cullen.

"I don't think PTSAs have gotten enough information to make those decisions," she said. "They would have to know the specific eliminations at their school and have enough funds, funds that are not already earmarked. But this would end in great inequities because some schools can raise $200,000 and some only $15,000."

While some schools' PTSAs are informally talking about raising money for the 2003-04 year to fund staff who may lose their jobs due to the shortfall, Cullen said she doesn't believe PTSAs should be expected to help fill the gap, nor should they send that message.

"Schools are asked to step up to plate a lot and these are public schools, not private," she said. "And is that really a healthy message we want to send?

"Looking at PTSAs as fund-raisers can work against us because we are mainly about getting parents involved in their children's education. If all they hear about is PTSAs raising money, they may not be interested. We do much more than raise money for schools."

Colleen Pohlig: 206-515-5655 or cpohlig@seattletimes.com.

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