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Westmoreland groups help schools fill funding gaps

| Monday, March 24, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

When Latrobe-area residents wanted tech-savvy interactive whiteboards for their school district, the community-led Greater Latrobe Partners in Education Foundation leapt to the task, raising $226,000 to outfit every junior high classroom with 21st century technology.

The foundation is one of seven in Westmoreland County and about three dozen in the region that take a fundraising approach to help plug gaps as school districts struggle to balance budgets.

The trend is growing in Pennsylvania, but it's slower to catch on in the Pittsburgh region, said Bob New, president of the Pennsylvania Consortium of Education Foundations.

Of the state's 500 school districts, 240 have education foundations. They take an approach colleges have relied on for decades: Tap into the alumni base.

“We believe that public K-12 education should follow the college model,” New said. “The sad part is, they have to find new revenue streams more than asking the government and taxpayers to support them. ... There's a financial crisis in public education.”

School boards deal with daunting pension, health care and technology costs, he said, along with limits on how much they can hike taxes.

“Right now, school districts don't have this little bit of extra money,” he said. “(Foundations are) providing programs and projects that the school district can no longer fund.”

Foundations target businesses, parents, district staff and alumni to donate. Corporations can channel funds through the state's Earned Income Tax Credit Program.

New lauded work undertaken by the nonprofit benefiting Greater Latrobe School District.

The 2-year-old foundation awards two endowed scholarships, funds for summer enrichment programs and teacher grants, in addition to its capital campaign for larger projects, such as the whiteboard upgrades. Teacher grants have funded gym equipment, field trips and supplies for parent tutoring programs, director of development Jessica Golden said.

“Things that are above and beyond the operating budget — things like field trips,” she said. “Those things have become a real challenge to maintain in today's environment.”

The notion of convincing alumni to donate to their alma mater is so unprecedented that the district doesn't maintain records showing contact information for potential donors.

“It is a cultural shift to think about giving to your alma mater as you would a college or university,” she said.

In its infancy, the Greensburg Salem Education Foundation began last year to provide “enriching opportunities for students” and “additional options” for teachers, said Anita Rometo, administrative liaison and board member to the association.

Teachers can apply for grants from the nonprofit, and the foundation plans to provide scholarships in the future. The first round of grants, which amounted to $3,500, funded programs throughout the district's grade levels.

A guidance counselor debuted a mentor program between high school students and fourth- and fifth-grade girls. An elementary classroom benefits from headphones, which allow readers to hear words read aloud as they follow along by sight. The high school mock trial team records members' speeches on an iPad to critique and improve their skills.

Private donors, including alumni, have donated to the projects. Foundation leaders are considering a singing competition to raise money.

“The items funded are things that would have had to fit into a budget or would have been done without. Some of (these) would be things that would typically be out of the normal realm for funding,” Rometo said. “It's because of how tight the budgets are now. At one time there was discretionary money. There's less and less of that.”

Norwin and Penn-Trafford school districts began foundations in the past few years.

The Norwin School District Community Foundation has given students more than $100,000 in scholarships and $7,800 in grants to teachers, foundation Executive Director Jonathan Szish said.

“It supports innovative programming that might not be funded otherwise through the school budget,” Szish said. “Its overall mission is very noble: to support innovative educational programs and kind of be a bulwark in terms of ups and downs of funding.”

At the Penn-Trafford Community Education Foundation, donations from local businesses, teacher and community members have increased during the past five years. Next, fundraisers will target alumni.

“We wanted to help offset the costs and help the district above and beyond. The district only spends so much money,” said Penn-Trafford Superintendent Matt Harris, a foundation board member. “It's really benefited us financially.”

New's state consortium helps foundations across Pennsylvania. Not all foundations are successful, and fledgling groups shouldn't expect immediate profits, he cautions.

“It's not a PTA, and it's not a booster club,” he said. “It's a business. They have to treat it that way.”

Rossilynne Skena Culgan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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