PTOs Pitch in More Than Ever in Economic Pinch

Parent-Teacher Organizations pick up the slack for projects that might otherwise remain undone.

On Monday night, the Board of Education may consider whether to allow some of its Parent-Teacher Organizations to move ahead with projects far beyond the scope of the type of activities and "extras" that PTOs funded in years past.

Knowing that school funding is very unlikely to be available for such a project in forseeable future, the PTO at the Cedar Hill School already has raised a good part of an estimated $100,000 needed to renovate and brighten a school library that largely dates back to the 1950s, said Christina Ehret, co-president of that elementary school's PTO.

The ambitious project, as outlined, calls for a new ceiling, lighting, carpeting, updated computers, more child-friendly shelves and an overall brightening of library, which needs to become more of a modern media center, Ehret said. 

"We want to make it more of a warm and inviting place," she said of the current library. "It's really dated and just ugly." Volunteers in the PTO have taken on not only fundraising to pay for the project, but also grant writing and working with the school's architect to devise with a plan, she said.

"It's amazing what motivated parents can do," Ehret said. She acknowledged that the makeover is going to be a big undertaking for volunteers, but said parents come to the table with many skills from their professional backgrounds. 

The Cedar Hill PTO already has set aside a substantial portion of the cost  from an fundraising auction in 2008 and is waiting for a green light from the Board of Education to proceed further with fundraising, Ehret said. She said that approval may come tonight. 

Ehret said the PTO volunteers would like to complete a large portion of the project while school is out of session next summer. Another fundraising auction is planned for March, she said.

Even if school funding was available for such a project, the Cedar Hill PTO is planning a more complete and aesthetically pleasing upgrade than could be provided with taxpayer funds, said Susan Carlsson, president of the Board of Education.

But, with state funding slashed by about $3.8 million this school year, and another $800,000 cut from the proposed $86 million voted down at the polls last year, Carlsson said the school district isn't planning any building upgrades at this time. "We are not really doing anything except maintenance in the building," Carlsson said.

Meanwhile, the Liberty Corner Elementary School's PTO is seeking the school board's formal acceptance of a donation to pay for the purchase and installation of air conditioning units in classrooms and an office on the 100-year-old school's second floor.

Those classrooms can heat up to about 100 degrees on really warm spring or fall days as heat rises, said Laurie Dobson, co-president of that school's PTO. "Sometimes, (students) have to double up in someone else's room," she said. 

"Our hope is that we can get everything installed in the spring so when May and June rolls around, everyone can stay in their classrooms, and get their work done," she said. Only a small part of the old school building is air conditioned, she said. Installing units on the second floor also is expected to relieve some of the heat on the first floor, she said.

The Liberty Corner PTO has set aside a large portion of the anticipated $36,000 to $40,000 cost through previous fundraising.

Dobson, too, said parents don't expect the school district will be able to fund such projects in the near future. "We are trying to fill in the gaps," she said. Both PTO co-presidents said they don't expect the school board will turn down their assistance.

But Dobson added that fundraising is harder in the current economy, too. "It's tough for everyone to do fundraising," she said.

Candace Hull, co-president of the PTO at the William Annin Middle School, agreed that fundraising can be a challenge in the current economic environment.

But Hull said that school was extremely lucky to receive a $2,500 donation from a local resident, Joanne Roth, to underwrite last Monday's school assembly on Internet Bullying, presented to all grade levels at the middle school by Keith Dunn of kdcop.com.

The school's principal, Karen Hudock, said that school uses its continuing funds for drug education to keep a township patrol officer, Hank Warner, at the school on a part-time basis. The school also provides drug education assemblies, she said.

But the assembly on cyber-bullying provided an extra program not covered by school funding, Hull said. Warner said he recommended Dunn, who had the students laughing as well as thinking during his hour-long presentation.

"It's like giving back to the community," Roth said in explaining her motivation for the donation. She said she is aware that the students may not have had an assembly on an important topic without her donation. "I have the means to help out," she said.

Dunn, who reminded the students that whatever is posted on the Internet is "not written in pencil, it's written in ink," also talked about the dangers of meeting up with online predators.

Hull said the donation, very much appreciated, was unexpected. She said the PTOs  and parents are doing the best they can to provide the students with extras that have fallen by the wayside during continuing waves of budget cuts.

"Parents are going to be called more and more to augment their kids' education," Hull predicted.

Over at the Oak Street Elementary School, the PTO used Scholastic Books "credits" earned at the annual book fair to donate books to teachers and the media center, said Christine Ziegler, that school's PTO co-president.

All funding for new library books was one of the accounts cut from the 2010-11 school budget following its defeat at the polls.

Working with the media center staff, Ziegler said parents also took on both the labor and funding needed to continue the school's longstanding "Wizards of Words" contest held annually for fourth and fifth graders.

Parents last year coached "teams" at their homes to prepare for the contest, she said last month. 

Even with the generosity of both time and funding from school families, Ziegler said that the PTO feels it necessary to make donations received from parents go as far as possible in coming up with projects at the school. "We are pushing our community chairs to be stingy with their money," she said.

"EduNation: A Patch Report on Our Schools" is a nationwide Patch series probing the economy's effect on our schools. For more information, see here.

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