For Some Schools, Tight Budgets Mean More from Parents

School starts Thursday, Sept. 8, but principals have been working all summer trying to make do with tighter budgets, for the fifth year in a row. Though the overall Department of Education budget continues to go up (primarily to cover fixed costs), schools this year are dealing with an average budget cut of 2.4 percent.

But there’s a big difference in how schools in middle class and wealthy districts, and those where a majority of children are poor enough to qualify for free lunch, can weather the austerity: in wealthy districts, parents can raise their own money to support staff and services, with some doing so in large amounts. And in some schools parents are even being prodded toward a "suggested" donation.

At P.S. 40 on East 20th Street in Manhattan, the P.T.A. encourages suggested donations of $400 per family ("only $2.18 per school day"), according to its Web site. On the Upper East Side, the suggested amount at the new P.S. 151 in Yorkville is much higher: $1,250, though its Web site adds, “but no amount is too small.” Lori Levin, a parent, says the money is used for a recess program, chess, concerts and staff development.

It’s true that schools with high concentrations of poor students qualify for extra federal funds. But in interviews, parents acknowledged how P.T.A. fund-raising highlights the perennial, and uncomfortable, issue of equity in education.

The Department of Education says there’s no way to tell if parent donations have gone up in recent years. But it does have strict regulations when it comes to paying for staff. Parent donations can only be used for “supplemental” staff members (music and art teachers, for example) and not core instructional teachers. They can also hire part-timers after school, as well as classroom aides and teaching assistants to help provide more attention when class sizes go up.

At P.S. 10 in Park Slope, donations went up more than 60 percent last year. P.T.A. co-president Elizabeth Ellis says a successful auction convinced parents they could chip in more, and they eventually grossed $150,000 for the year.

Carrie Reynolds, P.T.A. President at P.S. 163 on West 97th Street, says she would not want to see restrictions on parent fund-raising. Her P.T.A. raised $100,000 last year for enrichment activities. But she noted that about half the students in her school typically qualify for free or reduced lunch, which is why she’s concerned that the system is not equitable. “It just seems very unfair to me that wealthier schools can pay for all these services,” she said.