School budget cuts, rising expenses and grander ambitions for student activities have driven up the cost of sending a child to a New York City public school. Earlier this spring, SchoolBook asked parents to tell us about their school-related spending. Journalists followed up on the hundreds of responses we received, resulting in a series of reports on SchoolBook, in The New York Times and on WNYC. You can find previous reports here. This post examines the choices made by PTAs about how to use the money they have raised.
School library or science lab? More assistant teachers or more chess? Yoga or art?
Raising money is only part of the task that PTAs take on these days, as they increasingly step up their role in paying for school services.
As coffers swell -- or as schools in low-income communities try to figure out how to stretch their budgets -- PTA officers and other parents are prioritizing the use of parents' money, and it's not as easy as it might seem.
“Sometimes, it’s hard to judge what’s the right thing to do,” said Sue Dietrich, the PTA treasurer for Staten Island Technical High School, one of the city’s nine selective high schools, which raises about $60,000 annually. “It’s hard to know what’s really necessary.”
To examine more closely the tough decisions leaders like Ms. Dietrich have had to make in recent years, in light of searing cuts to school budgets, SchoolBook sifted through more than 400 public school parent surveys, and comments left on our site. We also conducted interviews with PTA leaders and school officials.
This is what we discovered.
Visual art, dance and music programs are the most popular line items across the city. No matter the amount raised by a PTA -- the range was anywhere from $50,000 to more than a million dollars -- PTA officers are spending large chunks of their budgets on these programs.
In some cases, like at the East Village Community School on East 12th Street in the East Village, where the parent association pays more than $10,000 for historical drama workshops provided by the Phoenix Theater Company, they are picking up the check at a time when their principals have made it clear that cherished programs will be scratched if parents don’t step in with financial help.
Filling in for threatened science programs through kits like the ones purchased by the parent association at P.S. 87 William Sherman on West 78th Street -- which can cost thousands -- is also now common PTA practice.
Other PTAs like the one at Nest+M, a gifted-and-talented school on the Lower East Side, and P.S. 199 Jessie Isador Straus on West 70th Street, have opted to deal with the potential dearth of science instruction at their schools by paying the salaries of science and technology teachers themselves. The cost: about $100,000.
Chess is a popular addition on the Upper West Side and Upper East Side, with some schools like P.S. 163 Alfred E. Smith on West 97th Street hosting fund-raisers just to support their programs.
“It seems like everybody offers it now,” said Carrie Reynolds, a PTA president at the school. “I think parents expect it.”
And increasingly, parents also expect yoga, which is offered at elementary schools in Tribeca, the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn.
Schools with limited PTA funding like P.S. 305 Dr. Peter Ray in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, which earns about $5,000 a year and where 83.3 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch, money has gone, in recent years, to helping seniors get through graduation ceremonies, their prom and to take “a nice end of year trip,” according to the PTA treasurer, Angela Spratley.
School philosophies can develop around spending decisions with top-earning schools like the Anderson School, a gifted-and-talented K-8 on West 77th Street, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for assistant teachers to buffer students from ballooning class sizes stemming from budget cuts.
But parent associations at other schools, like P.S. 89 in Battery Park City, have opted not to do that, seeing it as an unnecessary, large expense. Instead, P.S. 89 spends thousands of dollars a year on hard-to-find art supplies for its arts-infused curriculum.
At P.S. 199, the PTA has also opted out of large spending on assistant teachers, choosing instead to finance enrichment programs and some cluster teachers.
“Everyone in our school would like smaller class sizes,” said Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, one of the PTA presidents. “But we’re not totally uncomfortable with large class sizes.”
Technology can be another expenditure that comes down to school ethos, raising questions between parents and principals about how much they value computers in the classroom.
At P.S. 89, the PTA has opted to buy high-tech projectors for some classrooms -- but not all. But at other schools, like P.S. 87, classrooms have multiple computers, paid for by parents.
Parents say making decisions to buy single items -- backboards for basketball nets in the gym or hand dryers for bathrooms -- can be the easiest to decide on, as long as the money is there.
“I feel very comfortable with one-time-deal expenses,” said Ms. Reynolds at P.S. 163.
Decisions to commit to programs with long lifespans are harder to make.
In recent years, parents at P.S. 163 on the Upper West Side have had lengthy conversations about introducing an African dance residency program, even though the school already has Chinese and Latin dance programs.
Ms. Reynolds says the decision came down to demographics at a school where 21 percent of the students are black. “It made sense,” she said. “And the administration was enthusiastic.”
Also tough are decisions to spend money that will lead to more spending. At Staten Island Tech, discussions in recent months have centered around the purchasing of Kindles. “We’re like O.K.,” said Ms. Dietrich, the PTA treasurer. “But if we buy them for students, then the books aren’t free to put on them.” The PTA is holding off on that purchase.
PTA presidents say they often take direction from their schools’ teachers and principals -- but not always.
Recently, at Staten Island Tech, the PTA was asked by the school’s science department to pay for two 3D printers, each costing $1,500. They decided to buy only one.
Ms. Dietrich, who helped make the decision, says PTA members make lots of spending calls. And sometimes the call isn’t “which one.” Occasionally, it’s “no.”