A Years-Long Rift over School Fundraising Comes to a Head in Portland

At issue: should individual schools be able to buy more full-time staff members?

By Julia Silverman November 8, 2022

A long-standing rift over school fundraising might be headed for a tipping point in Portland.

At Rigler Elementary, at the edge of the Cully neighborhood in Northeast Portland, where nearly 90 percent of students qualify for free-and-reduced price lunch from the cafeteria, the PTA has hit upon a steady-if-not-flashy method of raising money: collecting cans.

“This is one of our most lucrative streams of fundraising right now,” says Magalí Rabasa, the school’s PTA president, whose daughter is in fourth grade. The school partnered with local businesses, and asked families to fill specially labeled blue bags with their empties; when they are redeemed, the 10-cent return proceeds automatically go to the PTA, which might use it to buy school supplies for teachers or to pay for pizza during community meetings.

Though she’s deeply involved in the school, Rabasa herself doesn’t participate in the can drive. Instead, she says her family saves their empties for one of her daughter’s classmates, who routinely comes to their curb with his grandmother, collecting cans and bottles to return for cash they can keep.

Rabasa, a professor of Hispanic Studies at Lewis & Clark College, is part of a group of families that has spent years pushing Portland Public Schools to drastically revamp how individual schools can raise money from parents, and what they can spend it on. After years of lobbying, the group appears to have enough votes among members of the Portland Public Schools board to make the broadest changes to the district’s parent-powered fundraising system in years—though not to completely abolish individual school foundations, which at a handful of schools can add well over a hundred thousand dollars to a principal’s budget.

Both sides of this issue are gearing up for a school board showdown coming in November, having launched competing websites and petitions to lay out their cases. Sources at the district say it’s likely that a compromise of sorts is in the offing that could look something like this: schools might need to hand over 50 percent of their total fundraising haul (that's significantly more than what's handed over now) and would be able to buy the equivalent of no more than one full-time educator with any money raised.

Portland’s current system allows any school to keep the first $10,000 they raise; after the school can keep two-thirds , and one-third of any fundraising gets put into a common pot and then redistributed among schools serving lower-income communities. That one-third set-aside has led to Portland’s system being hailed in some corners as a national model, but local advocates for change say it still perpetuates inequity, because some schools get to keep enough money to pay for extra teachers or educational assistants. The redistributed funding, by contrast, is spread more thinly, over a much broader cross-section of schools, and typically isn’t enough to pay for an extra pair of classroom hands. (For example, in the 2021–2022 school year, the highest grant received was $30,000, to each of the district's six high schools.)

“I think the ability to buy staff is unconscionable. It’s a privatization of education.” Rabasa says. “More broadly, I think there needs to be a shift to fundraising being done at a district level. As long as we keep fundraising for individual schools, it stays in the mindset of ‘I’m fundraising for my kid.’ It doesn’t contribute to any sense of commitment to the district, to the city, to the broader community.”

On the other hand, significant pockets of high-needs students exist at just about every school, regardless of overall demographics. Take Lincoln High School, on Portland’s west side, where a strong school foundation has historically brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, via high-ticket auctions and pledge drives—enough to pay for an extra teacher or two, depending on that year’s total. (Paying for a single, entry-level staffer can cost about $110,000 a year, given salary and benefits costs. In the 2021–2022 school year, Lincoln got to keep $133,046; in nonpandemic school years its fundraising numbers have been much higher.)

Lincoln’s demographic makeup makes it ineligible for any of the funding targeted at schools with higher numbers of historically underserved kids. That means no extra money from the federal government, no county-funded health centers, no free after-school community programming, and none of the extra funding that the district earmarks for schools that serve higher percentages of high-needs kids, which works out to about an eight percent budget boost in funding for staff.

That’s all fine, says Peyton Chapman, the longtime principal at Lincoln—she’s a believer in dedicating more public funding to schools where kids need it the most. “But schools like Lincoln have hundreds of highly underserved students,” just not enough to meet the thresholds that would trigger extra help, she says.

Without any ability to raise funds from parents, and without schools funded at the levels set out in Oregon’s purely aspirational quality education model, Chapman says those kids will fall ever more easily through the cracks.

“It’s dangerous to tell local school communities that we don’t need their help right now, or that we need less of their help,” she says. “After two years of COVID, we need to look for more ways to bring in funds from a variety of sources and partnerships, not fewer. Parents are stakeholders, and one of the ways you connect with those stakeholders is by letting them in.”

Across the Willamette River, KD Parham, the principal at North Portland’s Roosevelt High School, says she’d prefer a move to a district-wide model, to put everyone on equal footing—though the need at her school is less for staff and more for supplies, equipment, and experiences for kids and families.

“The ceramics teacher comes to me and says, ‘Hey, I need to buy clay for the year.’ Well, that $3,000 has to come from somewhere. So it either comes from my tiny consolidated budget, or it comes any fees or donations from the student body [or their families and community members]. And if not, it comes from the parent equity fund. But that's a tenth of what I've been given for the year for the whole school and our kids [from the redistributed foundation money]. And our kids need clay. And they deserve more than that.”

Amid the periods of remote school and the many canceled events of the pandemic, private fundraising is already more anemic than in years past. In the 2019–2020 school year, the total raised districtwide was nearly $4 million; in the 2021–2022 school year, that dropped to just under $2.8 million.

Meanwhile, some families decamped for private schools that opened more quickly for full-time in-person school during the pandemic, says Erin Gates, the head of the foundation at Duniway Elementary School in Southeast Portland, which has in years past spent its fundraised dollars on classroom aides across grade levels.

“I take issue with people who think foundations are the enemy,” Gates says. “At the end of the day, we are all working for the same goal, trying to improve education for all kids across Portland.”

Julia Brim-Edwards, who was an activist for school funding in the 1990s after a statewide ballot measure curbed how much local communities could raise for schools via property taxes, now serves on the Portland school board. (It's her second stint—she also served on the board from 2001 to 2005.) She says all the noise around the issue underlines the need for every student to have access to reading specialists or classroom educational assistants or smaller class sizes—regardless of whether they can raise money from parents or get a boost from equity funds. Brim-Edwards also points out that thanks largely to parent activism, over the past few decades funding sources for public schools have expanded, from the state’s set-asides for vocational education and the Student Investment Act to local-option levies and even the citywide arts tax.

But with PPS’s enrollment having experienced a recent decline—related in part to rising home prices and exacerbated by the pandemic—the per-pupil funding that comes from the state, still the lion’s share of the PPS budget, is poised for a precipitous decline in coming years. And millions of dollars in COVID relief funds are use-it-or-lose-it and will evaporate by 2024, unless Congress acts to extend it.

That means more competition for the money that’s left—and Chapman, for one, says advocating for the marginalized kids under her charge at Lincoln with new curbs on private fundraising in place could me an increased jockeying for other pots of district money targeted at high-needs populations. “People are going to want to compete more for those scarce resources,” she says. “And I don’t want to jeopardize or risk the full-time educators that are in place at other schools.”

It’s a thorny question, says Celeste Grover, the newly elected PTA president at Scott Elementary, another higher-needs school on Portland’s east side. There, the PTA is able to raise enough to pay for buses for field trips, a staff lunch at the beginning of the year, a monthly coffee cart for teachers, and some free events, like a spring carnival. The school qualifies for extra funding from the district and the federal government, and still there’s more need, Grover says—for paraeducators, for reading specialists, for a new playground that would cost far beyond what the community could raise.

“Fundamentally, I don’t think that parents and private money should be able to buy staff,” she says. “But do I understand the need for it and the want for it. And if I was in a different community with a different lens, would I want to contribute to that? Probably. But I have a different frame of reference. We all want the same thing. I know it has been hard for me to let go of the idea that it is all about my kids. It is about the bigger picture, that elevating kids who wouldn’t otherwise have opportunities is going to make the world better and more equitable. And that gets complicated.”