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Islanders create a new foundation to support public schools

After months of work, several Islanders are about to create a foundation to support Vashon’s public schools, an entity they hope will help to bridge the gap between inadequate public funds and the school district’s ongoing financial needs.

The group plans to file its articles of incorporation with the state this week and gain its IRS-sanctioned tax-free status by the end of the year — designations that will make the Vashon Island Schools Foundation a bona-fide nonprofit that can collect money on behalf of public education.

The effort, currently helmed by a five-member board, will put Vashon on par with other districts throughout the region, from Cle Elum to Mercer Island, some of which have been raising philanthropic dollars for their public schools for years. All told, said Scott Hudson, an Island parent who heads the board, there are some 6,000 foundations across the country that exist for the sole purpose of raising money for public schools.

“Almost every school district around us has a foundation,” Hudson said.

The fundraising effort this spring, which brought in more than $450,000 to the district to help it close a vexing budget gap, showed him that a strong vein of philanthropic support for public schools exists on Vashon.

“There are groups of people who I didn’t even know were out there and who are not involved in the schools who want to support public education,” he said.

Laura Wishik, chair of the Vashon school board and a key player in the foundation’s creation, said she’s hopeful the foundation will enable the district to maintain and eventually enhance academic standards at its three public schools.

“My initial hope is that it will succeed in raising enough funds to sustain the excellence we have in our schools. I hope there will come a day when we go beyond that and improve what we have,” she said.

The foundation was created after this spring’s ambitious — and ultimately successful — fundraising drive, an effort that underscored, Hudson and Wishik said, the district’s ongoing need for greater public support. After the drive was completed, several Islanders got together to discuss the need for a foundation and began meeting every other week to draft not only bylaws and articles of incorporation but also a set of overarching principles to inform and guide their work.

Superintendent Michael Soltman, who played a role in building a schools foundation at his previous district on San Juan Island, was present at those meetings. The group also looked to Mercer Island’s foundation, which has been in existence for nearly three decades, for direction and ideas, Hudson said.

What emerged is a fledgling organization with a far-reaching vision. According to its founding principles, it hopes to “develop a philanthropic tradition” in support of public education on Vashon; “build a sustainable source of broad-based community funding” and “support all students, grades and schools” in the district.

The foundation will not try to dictate to the district how it should use funds from the nonprofit to support public education, Wishik said. Rather, she said, the district will let the foundation know its funding needs and priorities, and the foundation will work to raise the funds to support those needs.

“It’ll be very specific,” she said. “It’s not like money going into a black hole. It’ll really clear what’s beingfunded.”

The foundation will not attempt to raise funds to create an endowment for the school district, an effort that would require millions of dollars, Hudson said. “Every dollar we raise will go to district,” he added.

Soltman said the foundation is critical to the school district in light of the state’s ongoing financial crisis.

“The alternative is an education most Islanders wouldn’t accept for their kids,” he said, noting that without such support class sizes could mushroom and programs could be slashed. “I just don’t think there’s a choice.”

The group hopes to build its board over the next few months to a minimum of 11 members. It also plans to work closely with the PTSA, Partners in Education (PIE), which raises money to fund grant requests from teachers, and other organizations on the Island that help support public education. Representatives from both PTSA and PIE will serve on the foundation’s board — either as ex officio members or voting members, Hudson said.

Hudson said he doesn’t think the foundation’s fundraising efforts will steal donations away from other groups. PIE, for instance, gives targeted grants to teachers, a different mission than that of the foundation, he said.

What’s more, he added, he believes that by engaging more Islanders in a shared discussion over public school financing, the larger Vashon community will end up supporting a range of organizations that strengthen the schools.

“It’s the rising tide that lifts all boats,” he said.

Lauri Hennessey, president of the PTSA, said she welcomes the new foundation. Hennessey attended some of the regular meetings over the summer, including one where the head of the Mercer Island public schools foundation spoke to the group about how the foundation has helped to reshape the way fundraising happens on Mercer Island.

“There’s this whole territorial gut instinct that some PTSAs go into; I don’t feel that at all,” she said.

At the same time, Hennessey added, she’s encouraging the foundation’s new board to run the organization “completely and utterly in the sunshine,” with open meetings that are regularly announced to the public. She also hopes the board will recruit board members who represent a cross-section of the Island; of the five members now on the board, three, she noted, are lawyers.

“Long-time Islanders have a different vision ... Many of them are asking tough questions,” she said.

Hudson said the board wants Islanders who are interested in the new foundation to nominate themselves to serve on the board. Nomination applications will be available at the library.

“We want to develop a well-rounded group,” he said.

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