Streams

Parents Pay for School Staff, With Little Oversight

Friday, June 08, 2012 - 06:38 AM

(Elbert Chu)

At some schools, parent associations pay for part-time music teachers. At others, they pay for lunchroom aides, or library workers who are considered consultants.

It's an open secret that parent associations in many of the city's well-heeled neighborhoods in effect buy staff members whom their schools couldn't afford on their own. But it's been difficult to determine the extent of this spending because the Department of Education tracks only a sliver of parent fund-raising and spending.

However, documents obtained by WNYC and SchoolBook show that at least 40 schools across New York City were able to pay for bigger staffs last year with money from parent groups. The list highlights the difference parents can make in providing services at the public schools during a time of budget cuts.

As expected, many of the 40 schools are in wealthy neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn where community members are able to step in to provide the kinds of programs common in suburban districts. But the list also includes schools in upper-middle-class neighborhoods in Queens. In more modest enclaves on Staten Island and in Queens, parents raised a few thousand dollars for part-time band teachers.

It also shows how little the Department of Education can regulate parent groups, because some have long-standing tax-exempt organizations and pay for part-time school staff members directly, enabling them to fly under the department's radar.

Among the parent groups at those 40 schools the department could track, the PTA at Public School 321 William Penn in Park Slope raised $176,665 for personnel last year, the second-highest amount raised by a school's parent organization in the city.

“That money went to pay for a full-time D.O.E. arts teacher and five part-time consultants,” said the principal, Liz Phillips. She said the consultants included “a computer technician, an arts consultant, our after-school coordinator, and two teaching assistants who mainly assist with our conflict-resolution/mediation program and our after-school program.”

She said the school lost about $1.4 million over the past four years from budget cuts while class sizes grew.

Lucy Rorech, a co-president of the PTA, said families contributed through a wide variety of activities, including an annual spring dance that sold out almost instantly.

“We have a large PTA and we remind everybody that just by virtue of having a child in the school you’re a member of the PTA,” Ms. Rorech said.

City parents have been stepping in for a long time to hire staff members when budgets are tight. But the rules changed two years ago after complaints by the teachers' union. Some schools were hiring teaching assistants with parent money, and the union didn’t want them replacing its members.

The rules now state that parent associations cannot hire full-time classroom teachers. They can, though, give the department money to hire part-time staff members, like library workers and music teachers, for their schools, as well as temporary teaching assistants.

But parent associations can still directly hire part-time staff members and teaching aides to work after school and on weekends if the associations provide liability insurance and withhold payroll taxes. All of these staffers are fingerprinted and approved by the principal like anyone else.

Parent leaders are often reluctant to talk about these hires, because they fear drawing the Education Department's attention and are confused about what they can and cannot do under the regulations. But direct hires are known to occur at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village and P.S. 234 Independence School in TriBeCa.

The city doesn’t track these expenditures because the regulations consider parent associations “autonomous and self-governing.” However, all parent associations are required to file annual financial reports with their schools' principals, who then turn them over to the Division of Family and Community Engagement.

That’s why the list of 40 schools isn't a complete picture of how many schools raise money for staffing. It does show how some parents choose to spend their money, however. Many of the 40 schools hired teaching assistants, to provide more individual attention for younger children.

At the Earth School in the East Village, which gave the Education Department $27,000 for personnel, a former PTA treasurer, Sarah Broach, said parents wanted the assistants for the lower grades because class sizes were growing.

“The school wanted to shrink the fourth- and fifth-grade classes down, and could only do that by raising the first and second grades,” she said.

At P.S. 84 Lillian Weber on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a PTA co-president, Jean Moreland, said the school had received a grant of $125,000 from a former parent specifically for eight full-time - but temporary - teaching assistants in the kindergarten and first-grade classes. Ms. Moreland noted that parents at other Upper West Side schools did similar things, and incoming parents now expect it.

“If you don’t have those teaching assistants, it’s seen as a mark against you,” she said. “They always see more adults in the classroom as positive.”

Parents at P.S. 107 John Kimball in Park Slope raised $210,000 for staff members -- more than any other school on the Department of Education’s list. The money went to a popular after-school center that offers child care as well as Mandarin classes and programs like graphic-novel making. Parents pay a fee and scholarships are awarded based on need.

But it’s not just the wealthiest communities that are pulling together to hire staff members. Parents at P.S. 99 in Kew Gardens, Queens, raised $133,162 for personnel. And a quarter of the 40 schools that raised money for additional staff members collected less than $10,000.

At P.S. 35 in Clove Valley on Staten Island, the parent coordinator, Peggy Feminella, said the $3,099 that parents gave the Education Department went to a part-time band teacher who works two days a week in the fourth and fifth grades.

At P.S. 153 in Maspeth, Queens, parents raised $6,700 to keep a part-time band teacher they would have lost otherwise, according to the parent coordinator, Susan Yannis.

"The parents want something, and if they put their minds to it, they can do it,” she said.

Of course, parent associations buy much more than staff members with their fund-raising. At many schools, art and music programs and class trips are typically financed by parents. And those expenditures aren't tracked, either, by the central administration, because the money doesn't flow through its coffers.

At the academically selective NEST+M school on the Lower East Side, parents raised $117,000 for staff members. But the PTA president, Katy Stokes, said they also raised money to help the school in other ways.

“There are a zillion things the PTA can pay for without going through the school,” she said, singling out photo copiers, paper, math books and air-conditioners as examples.

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