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Please help our school: Come to our cocktail gala

Early edition: Sure, area public schools still sell candy and magazines to raise funds. But they also might offer you a spa package.

By Stephanie Hayes
Published November 11, 2006


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TAMPA — A gala at the downtown Hyatt. A casino night in the St. Pete Times Forum. A wine sale at a Hyde Park jazz concert.

High profile charity events? Think again. All are public school fundraisers held in the Tampa Bay area.

While plenty of students still sell candy or gift wrap to raise money, fundraising efforts at some local schools are becoming surprisingly sophisticated. And successful.

The Safety Harbor Elementary PTA brings in about $40,000 a year, some of it from auctioning gift baskets that include spa packages and tickets to Buccaneers and Lightning games. The PTA at Hillsborough’s Bryant Elementary held a casino night and silent auction at the swanky XO Club in the St. Pete Times Forum. Its take, coupled with other events: $120,000.

But the area’s fundraising king has to be Gorrie Elementary, an A-rated school in Tampa’s affluent Hyde Park.

Every year, Gorrie hosts a cocktail gala with a sit-down dinner. The event typically brings in $100,000, said Gorrie principal Susan Foster.

In 2005, Lazy Days RV Supercenter founder Don Wallace and his wife hosted their own dinner for Gorrie parents. It raised $665,000 toward a $1-million multipurpose coliseum being built at the elementary school.

“We benefit from hundreds of parents that are willing to get involved,’’ said Wallace, who has two children at Gorrie. He declined to say how much he has personally donated.

“People do what they can do,’’ Wallace said.

Some education officials, however, say the heightened emphasis on fundraising could be getting out of hand.

“Our schools are funded. Not well, but they’re funded sufficiently,” said Pinellas County School Board member Nancy Bostock. “I think, in the efforts of driving up profits in fundraising, sometimes we cry wolf a little.”

• • •

Madalena Weiss, PTA president at A-rated Tampa Palms Elementary, said she sees it differently.

Her school needs new musical instruments and more books. And unlike low-income schools, which get extra funding from the federal government, Tampa Palms Elementary has to fend for itself.

“We can’t get the same kind of materials that a “D” school or an “F” school gets,” said Weiss, whose PTA has raised $23,000  this year, two-thirds of it through cash donations.

Hillsborough County School Board member Carolyn Bricklemyer said private fundraising is not a luxury.

“At a district level, we couldn’t possibly fund everything that a school wanted,” Bricklemyer said.

So Lutz Elementary sells $100 commemorative plaques to raise money for a covered play court. And faculty and staff at Clearwater’s Coachman Fundamental Middle School donate their FCAT  bonuses back to the school. This year, their gifts totaled $54,000.

Some schools have even set up nonprofit foundations that solicit tax-deductible donations. In south Tampa, Gorrie Elementary sends students to Wilson Middle, which feeds Plant High. All have foundations.

“We primarily solicit dollars from our school community and we also solicit from some business partners that we have relationships with,’’ said Wilson foundation president Michelle Shimberg .

Money raised by Gorrie’s foundation — which hosts the school’s annual gala — funds an after-school enrichment program. It also helped purchase playground equipment, violins, laptop computers and a security fence.

The Hillsborough Education Foundation, a nonprofit group that raises money districtwide, discourages schools from forming foundations.

Having just one foundation keeps things professional, said Foundation president Bill Hoffman. And his foundation, he said, can ''help some of the schools that may not have the ability to do significant fundraising.”

• • •

They need the help. At many low-income schools, even collecting PTA dues can be a challenge.

“I struggle. Big time struggle,” said Phyllis Rodriguez, principal at Tampa’s Cleveland Elementary, where most students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

Cleveland makes about $600 from school photos and about $20 a week by selling pencils and paper at a school store, Rodriguez said. One year, the school tried to sell spirit shirts, but Rodriguez got saddled with many that went unsold. This year, she’s trying a cookie dough sale.

“If I had to rely on fundraising to do the things I need, I would not have anything,” she said.

Cleveland is one of 114 low-income schools in Hillsborough funded under Title I, the largest federal education program in the U.S. Last year, those schools received as much as $650 per eligible student.

The money can’t go for extracurricular frills. It pays for books, reading coaches and technology to help children who don’t have many advantages.

Because some schools get hundreds of thousands of dollars under Title I, Gorrie principal Susan Foster said, “if you want to look at it economically, in a lot of ways, we’re equal.”

And they don’t ignore their struggling peers, she said. Gorrie students make birthday gifts for students at other schools and adopt migrant families.

“Every month, this school is helping some other entity in the community,” Foster said.

Likewise, Bryant Elementary has adopted Cleveland Elementary School families, buying them toys and clothing around the holidays. At one point, Bryant helped Cleveland raise money toward a covered play court.

Any help is appreciated, Rodriguez said. But obsessing over money, she said, takes away from her real mission — to educate children.

“I don’t focus on that because if I did, I wouldn’t be able to do the job we need to do for the kids,” she said. “We do the best that we can, we do what we can, and things have a way of falling into place.”

Times researcher Cathy Wos and staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek and Donna Winchester contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at (813) 269-5303 or shayes@sptimes.com.

[Last modified November 11, 2006, 18:36:29]


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