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Foundations a lifeline for school districts, students

| Saturday, May 18, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Nikolas Trautman and Savannah Wyse, both 6-year-old kindergartners in West View Elementary School, work on a lesson while using iPads in a recent library class. The tablet computers were paid for by the North Hills Foundation.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Blake Meinert, 6, a kindergartner at West View Elementary School, uses an iPad paid for by the North Hills Foundation during library class.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Kylie Freese, 6, a kindergartener at West View Elementary School, uses an iPad during library class in school. The North Hills Foundation, a nonprofit established to fund programs in the district, paid for iPads.

Seneca Valley High School senior Robert Kunkle wanted to make a battery fueled by bacteria — a far-fetched project more typical for a university lab or biotech company than a high school.

When he got a charge of 0.6 of a volt from his “biological battery,” school officials put it on display, and he won an honorable mention at the Pittsburgh Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

The experimental battery was not cheap, however.

“The chemicals I needed were hard to find. These chemicals occur naturally in cells, but they had to be isolated from the cells, which makes them expensive,” said Kunkle, 16, of Cranberry.

He could not have made the battery without a $300 grant for materials from Seneca Valley Foundation, a private nonprofit corporation set up last year to benefit the school district.

Similar foundations connected to public school districts are becoming increasingly popular across the country, especially as public money for schools has dropped.

In 2011, the state cut $1 billion from Pennsylvania's public schools, largely because of the loss of federal stimulus money that had boosted the budget. Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed 2013-14 state budget would increase public school funding by $90 million, but state money for public education would remain $766 million less than it was three years ago.

Foundations can raise money without raising taxes, said Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

“These foundations are not erasing school budget deficits, and they certainly are not at the levels that foundations in higher education are, but they do quite a lot,” Robinson said.

According to the association, 53 percent of the 501 school districts in Pennsylvania have foundations. About 4,500 such foundations exist in the United States, according to the Des Moines-based National School Foundation Association, which determined that foundations associated with K-12 public schools have average annual revenue of $50,000 to $100,000.

“The major reason these nonprofits are more active and successful now is because state revenues have been down for several years,” said Bill Hoffman, interim executive director of the national association.

Companies, individuals give

One of the oldest school district funds in Western Pennsylvania is Canon-McMillan's Dollars for Scholars fund, which this week will award more than 100 students about $1,000 each in scholarship money.

Run by Jill Shook, a graduate of Canon-McMillan High School who taught kindergarten in the Washington County district for 35 years, the fund debuted in 1990. Companies such as coal and gas giant Consol Energy Inc. and Ansys Inc., an engineering simulation software firm, sponsor scholarships. Both companies are based in Southpointe in Cecil, which the school district serves along with Canonsburg and South Strabane.

Each October, Dollars for Scholars raises about $35,000 from its Jack O'Lantern Jog, a 5K race.

Shook underwrites two $1,000 scholarships. The Jill Shook Scholarship goes to a student who plans to study elementary education, and the Raymond and Amelia Shook Scholarship, named for her parents, goes to a student who plans to study music.

“It's my way of giving back. I graduated from (Canon-McMillan) and worked there for a long time,” she said.

Seneca Valley's foundation raised about $48,000 and put the money toward projects, including band uniforms, libraries and science projects, according to Linda Andreassi, a district spokeswoman.

“We want to have scholarships down the road that come from this fund,” she said.

School foundations typically do not help fund sports or other extracurricular activities, which mostly get money through specific booster organizations.

The North Hills School District used money from its foundation to buy iPads for elementary schools.

“We are hoping to get businesses more involved with making donations. We are looking at mini-grants for classroom projects and are also considering scholarships,” Amanda Hartle, a district spokeswoman, said of the foundation, which was established in 2001.

Beyond typical school needs

This year, the Pine-Richland Opportunities Fund gave out more than $23,000 in scholarships to nine high school seniors. The largest scholarship was $6,500.

Set up in 1994, Pine-Richland's fund grew out of a parent's desire to establish a scholarship in memory of his late daughter. The fund also gives grants to faculty members for special projects or teaching materials.

“The fund's mission has expanded over the years. Funding for public school systems has been cut back, which makes the fund mo re important,” said Moira Singer, its vice president.

School foundations became more attractive as schools lost revenue and faced high pension expenses, said Hoffman of the National School Foundation Association.

“These are not endow ed foundations, for the most part. And at the K-12 level, it is not the responsibility of these foundations to replace tax revenue. But they have helped save many programs that parents and students did not want eliminated,” Hoffman said.

The Westmoreland Intermediate Unit established a foundation in 2004 that helps with supplemental programs, said Gregg Kretchun, its coordinator.

“The foundation has grown well over the years,” he said.

Among its projects: a horseback riding therapy program for children, an instrumental and choral music program in a school for children with special needs and a hearing aid loan program for students. It sponsored art exhibitions in the Latrobe Art Center and paid for some capital improvements in Clairview School in Greensburg, an in termediate unit-operated school that educates about 200 children with special needs.

Rick Wills is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7944 or

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