For Some Schools, Tight Budgets Mean More from Parents

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School starts on Thursday, 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 weathering the austerity in wealthy and middle-class districts and in those districts in which a majority of children are poor enough to qualify for free lunch. In wealthy districts, parents may raise money on their own to support staffs and services; some do so in large amounts. And in some schools, parents are even being prodded toward a "suggested" donation.

At Public School 40 on East 20th Street in Manhattan, the Parent-Teacher Association encourages donations of $400 per family ("only $2.18 per school day"), according to the P.T.A.'s 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, said the money was used for recess and chess programs, concerts and staff development.

It is true that schools with high concentrations of students from lower-income families qualify for extra federal funds. But in interviews, parents acknowledged that P.T.A. fund-raising highlighted a perennial, and uncomfortable, issue of equity in education.

The Department of Education said there was no way to tell if parent donations had gone up in recent years. But the department has strict regulations when it comes to paying for staff members. Parent donations can only be used for “supplemental” staff members (music and art teachers, for example) and not core instructional teachers. The donations can also be used to pay part-time employees in after-school programs, 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, Brooklyn, donations went up more than 60 percent last year. Elizabeth Ellis, a P.T.A. co-president there, said a successful auction convinced parents that they could chip in more, and that they raised a total of $150,000 for the year.

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

For the full WNYC report: