Parents Dig Deeper to Relieve Tight Public School Budgets

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How much is your child's public school education costing you?

We asked that question of New York City parents in March, and it seems that SchoolBook hit a sore spot.

Close to 400 readers answered our online survey, and while the responses came from all five boroughs, the message was nearly uniform: a lot.

After five years of cuts to school budgets, parents say they are being pressed to provide more supplies, support and dollars than ever, and many are spending hundreds of dollars, and in some cases, thousands, a year on school-related items.

Parents wrote about $300 graphing calculators, high school class trips to faraway locales with price tags that exceeded $3,000, extraordinarily long classroom supply lists, and $1,000 annual PTA “asks.”

"It’s true,” Sandra Smith, a parent at Public School 11 William T. Harris in Chelsea, posted in a comment on an article that Anna M. Phillips wrote about the growing costs of public school. “Over the past 10 years, I have been fund-raising for my kids’ schools and the pressure to raise more and more money is growing, and falling almost entirely on PTAs.”

Many reported spending $1,000 or more a year, and more than a dozen said they spent more than $5,000. There were several who said they spent $10,000 or more per year.

A parent of a child at Public School 183 Robert L. Stevenson on the Upper East Side reported spending $12,000, with $6,500 of that going toward fund-raisers.

As they were asked to do, parents listed the expenses related to their child's schooling — trips, shows, athletics, supplies, even tutoring and afterschool programs.

Of course, it's no surprise that raising children, especially in New York City, costs money. But many parents expressed surprise, and unhappiness, that such a large part of their annual costs went toward public schools.

“I was expecting more of a bargain than we’re getting,” said Karlette Fuchs, 45, the mother of a sophomore at Bard High School Early College in Lower Manhattan. Ms. Fuchs said she spent $1,000 on the school’s annual appeal and $1,500 for a class trip to Madrid.

Dozens of people who responded said fund-raisers topped their list of school-related expenses, while others said afterschool programs — which for many meant art, language and sports “enrichment” to make up for what state and city budget cuts have squeezed out — constituted the bulk of their check-writing.

As for classroom supplies, parents said they had been asked to provide paper towels, hand sanitizers, pencils, rugs, what one parent referred to as “those damn glue sticks,” and in some cases iPods and sand tables. One parent of a first grader at a Brooklyn school reported spending $480 on these items alone.

“There hasn't been a year that my kids have been in N.Y.C. public school that I have not been given a large shopping list, not just for supplies for my child's personal use but for supplies for the classroom,” wrote Sarah Jacobs, 50, the mother of a sophomore at the New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies in Chelsea.

For many parents, the fund-raisers are their largest expense. Many of you reported regularly dipping into your pocketbooks for school fund-raising events with fancy names, like “The Bollywood Blockbuster” and “The Good Times” gala, or for “Make Up the Difference” e-mail campaigns and other spot requests.

A parent of a P.S. 9 Sarah Anderson student on the Upper West Side reported spending $1,500 at the school’s annual auction.

In the wealthiest schools, PTAs expect parents to give, and to give a lot.

“Even before he started kindergarten in the fall the Parent Association introduced itself to us in a very upfront manner,” Geoffrey Perry, whose son attends P.S. 87 William Sherman on West 78th Street, wrote. “They told us all of the things the P.A. pays for.”

In District 2, which winds through some of the most affluent neighborhoods in Manhattan, and District 3, which encompasses the Upper West Side, parents reported that PTAs regularly requested hefty minimums.

At P.S. 199 Jessie Isador Straus on West 70th street, parents said the suggested donation was $1,400.

At P.S. 166 Richard Rodgers School of the Arts and Technology in Murray Hill, one parent said the annual request was $2,000. And at P.S. 6 Lillie D. Blake and Nest+M on the Lower East Side, parents reported the request was around $1,000.

In turn, these wealthy PTAs pay for a vast variety of expenses, including elementary school opera productions and ballroom dancing classes, chess, laptops, lice checks, bathroom repairs, new air-conditioners, more appetizing food in the cafeteria, teacher training and, increasingly, teachers themselves.

“Assistant teachers is the biggest line item in our PTA’s budget,” the parent of a third grader at the Anderson School on the Upper West Side reported.

According to Department of Education regulations, PTAs are allowed to pay for “cluster” teachers, assistant teachers and anyone who teaches after school, which means schools with relatively well-off PTAs have been able to buffer their students from the ills of ballooning class sizes and cuts to city-financed afterschool programs.

Less is asked of parents in poorer neighborhoods.

In the South Bronx, for instance, where hundreds of students are homeless and thousands live below the poverty level, many PTAs collect nothing at all. “For a variety of reasons they decide not to,” District 10's family advocate, Elba Velez, said in an interview.

But even routine expenses tax resources, parents said. Several parents in Queens and the Bronx listed the $20 and $30 they spent on class photos as their top expenses.

This glaring difference among PTAs — those that raise more than $1 million and those that raise nothing — worries and even agitates many parents. But several said they felt they had no choice but to support their own children.

“You just got to do it or you won’t get what you want from New York,” Rachel Leinweber, the mother of a fourth grader at Nest+M, said in an interview.

Others, like a Mr. Perry, who has a son at P.S. 87 William Sherman, reported giving “generously and happily.”

And many noted as he did that public school may no longer be free, but it is still less expensive than private school.

The readers' responses were the first step in a reporting project by SchoolBook. We took your crowd-sourced answers and built upon them journalistically, with interviews, visits to schools and closer analysis of budgets and city fund-raising reports.

In the coming weeks, we will be exploring these issues with a series of SchoolBook posts, radio reports and newspaper articles. We hope you will continue to shed more light on this growing spending phenomenon. Respond in the comments area or fill out our short survey with your own lists of costs. (Call out to parents in the Bronx and Queens!)

And please stay tuned. We have a lot to talk about.

Chris Palmer and Elbert Chu contributed reporting.