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Schools foundation embarks on fundraising drive

The Vashon Island Public Schools Foundation will kick off its campaign early this year in hopes that it can raise half a million dollars in pledges in time for the school district to avoid issuing layoff notices to teachers.

It’s the third year volunteers have undertaken a large fundraising campaign to help fill the school district’s budget deficit, and the second year they’ve done so under the auspices of the foundation.

In past years the school district, faced with a funding shortage, has been forced to issue RIF — or reduction-in-force — notices to half a dozen or more teachers and create a “worst case scenario” set of programatic cuts, only to restore the teachers and programs after pledges came in from the community.

“We’re really trying to shift it to a sustaining campaign,” said Superintendent Michael Soltman, “rather than a fire drill where we lay off teachers and reduce programs.”

This year, foundation members say, if they raise $500,000 in pledges by May 1, the school district can set its budget with the added funding in mind.

Soltman said the district would likely face a $600,000 to $800,000 budget shortfall this year, assuming no added cuts are made during the Legislature’s current session. Some of the gap, he said, will be bridged by increasing off-Island enrollment and continuing to reduce operational costs.

“It’s pretty clear that at a sustaining level we’re going to need $500,000 a year,” he said.

Last year the foundation fell short of its $550,000 goal, bringing in just over $450,000 in pledges. The  campaign saved the equivalent of seven full-time positions and a number of elective classes and programs. In 2010 a large group of volunteers, many who went on to form the foundation, also brought in a little more than $450,000.

Zabette Macomber, who now chairs the foundation’s 12-member board, called this year’s goal of $500,000 ambitious but doable. She said that when the district first faced a budget crisis two years ago she heard some grumblings from parents about the idea of donating to public schools. Now, she said, families seem to be accepting the new reality.

“We’re hearing that less and less,” she said. “I think people are really getting it, the foundation, that we’re here to stay and this is a campaign of sustainability.”

In addition to putting up the now-familiar thermometer signs around town to track the foundation’s progress, this year campaign organizers will also install signs on the school district campus to track how many families have contributed to the effort. It’s part of a push by the foundation for all school district families to donate what they can.

Volunteers are hoping to build on last year’s increase in family involvement — 20 percent of families pledged to donate in 2010 and about 50 percent pledged in 2011. They are campaigning the idea that if parents give $1 per student per year, the foundation could easily raise half a million dollars.

Macomber said foundation members know that some Vashon families cannot afford a dollar-per-day donation, but that it’s a simpler way for Islanders to understand that if everyone chips in what they can, the funds will add up quickly.

“That’s an easy number for people to wrap their heads around, but really we want people involved. … If you can swing that, great. If you have two kids and you can swing it, even better,” she said.

Brochures explaining the foundation’s goals will soon go home with all Vashon students, and the campaign will officially kick off on March 31 with a fun run at Vashon High School. A phone-a-thon aimed at parents is also in the works.

Donna Nespor, the foundation’s part-time administrator and a founding board member, said she hopes more families will consider giving what they can in monthly installments.

“It’s just like they would pay a sports fee, and maybe one less night our for pizza or something like that,” she said. “We would like to have more broad-based support.”

Islander Jenna Riggs, whose two daughters attend Chautauqua and McMurray, said she and her husband give to the foundation at the “dollar per day” level. They do so, however,  with some sadness that the school district must resort to asking the community for money, she said.

“I think the state of funding in education by the state is terribly sad,” she said, “I don’t think we should have to be raising money through a foundation for basic education. Even though I don’t think we should, I think that’s where we’re at right now.”

Riggs said she and her husband moved to Vashon eight years ago in part because they were so impressed with the schools, which she says offer more than private schools they toured in Seattle.

“When we weigh it against private school (tuition), our donation to the school district seems pretty small,” she said.

Islanders Laura and Phil Wheeler also give to the foundation, but with three children in the schools, they say giving more than $1,000 a year would be difficult.

Laura Wheeler said she knows one Islander who hates to even discuss the foundation with other parents because she feels bad she can’t give anything at all.

“I don’t want anyone to feel guilty or pressure,” she said. “I don’t think anyone should have to give, but I think we as a community should want to give.”

She, too, said she’s frustrated at the state’s failure to fully fund the schools.

“It’s sad that it’s come to this,” she said. “I think the fallacy of public schools being free is just gone.”

Indeed, Macomber said, community support of public schools through established foundations is becoming the norm across the state and across the country, following increasing cuts to education. The Mercer Island School District began its foundation 20 years ago, she noted.

“We are actually kind of slow to the game,” she said. “Of course, now they’re popping up more and more.”

Soltman said that even if some families can only give a small donation to the foundation, it will still show the district’s solidarity behind the cause.

“Even if it’s only a few dollars, if that’s all they can give, everybody can say, ‘Hey, I share in this commitment to have amazing, excellent schools,’” he said.

Meanwhile, foundation members are already contacting major donors and planning to reach out to Vashon businesspeople.

Tom Langland, who co-owns the Vashon Pharmacy, is helping put on a breakfast where local business owners will be encouraged to continue donating to the foundation or to give for the first time. A similar breakfast meeting is in the works for health care professionals as well as attorneys and accountants who live on the Island.

Last year, Vashon businesses contributed about $140,000. Langland, who graduated from Vashon High School, said he feels he should help the foundation’s cause because businesses and schools are so interconnected. Thriving schools will keep families on the Island, he said, and those families will in turn support the local economy.

“Strong schools and strong communities don’t happen without each other. Whatever befalls one befalls the other,” he said.

Foundation members, in the meantime, are hopeful their thermometer signs will reach the top by the beginning of May this year. And they hope for an extra boost on the 31st, when community members show for the foundation’s fun run with checkbooks in hand.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” Macomber said.

 

The schools foundation will hold a fun run at VHS at 10 a.m. March 31. The run is free. There will be prizes and donations will be accepted.

 

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