Share story

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The list of student perks at R.F. Pettigrew Elementary continues to grow. There’s new playground equipment, a rock-climbing wall, water-bottle filling stations, not to mention an annual fun day where kids are treated to a recreational field trip.

It’s all paid for by parents, not taxpayers.

“We’re blessed at Pettigrew,” said Marianne Mergen, co-president of Pettigrew’s parent-teacher organization.

An Argus Leader review of parent-teacher organization finances found the groups pump tens of thousands of dollars into Sioux Falls schools each year, helping teachers pay for food, field trips, technology, curriculum, even classroom assistants.

The groups are run by parent volunteers who are committed to improving the quality of education at their kids’ schools, but the boost they provide in the district disproportionately benefits schools in wealthier areas.

Pettigrew parents have raised and spent nearly $500,000 in the last five years, while other schools struggle to find volunteers for a single, year-end student event, the Argus Leader reported .

The potential for parent-teacher organizations to create financial disparities among schools is not a conversation that’s reached Sioux Falls, but a pair of recent national reports raise concerns about unintended consequences.

Nationally, parent-teacher organizations account for a small but growing slice of school spending. A 2013 Indiana University study found the groups’ spending nearly tripled since the mid-1990s and surpassed $425 million in 2010.

“While the millions of dollars parents raise is equivalent to less than 1 percent of total school spending, the concentration of these dollars in affluent schools results in considerable advantages for a small portion of already advantaged students,” a report by the Center for American Progress concluded in April.

The nonpartisan policy institute’s report, “Hidden Money: The Outsized Role of Parent Contributions in School Finance,” said well-funded parent-teacher groups pay for field trips, new computers, art and music instructors, and supplies, while less affluent schools often have to pay for those things from their overall budgets.

In Sioux Falls, the number of parent-teacher groups has declined in the last five years. In 2013, 19 out of 22 elementary schools had a group. Today, there are 15. Most of the groups that have dissolved were lower-income schools such as Annie Sullivan.

Meanwhile, schools in wealthier areas are more likely to have a parent-teacher group that raises more than $10,000 per year for their school, and sometimes much more.

R.F. Pettigrew’s consistently tops other elementary schools in parent fundraising. It also has one of the lowest rates of poverty in the city, with only 15 percent of students on free or reduced lunches.

The parent-teacher group supports the southwest Sioux Falls school with several annual events including the “Panther Dash” 5K and 10K fun run. This year, they’re raising money for all classrooms to upgrade to flexible seating.

“We want them to have the best that they can have,” Mergen said.

The Argus Leader reviewed five years of annual financial reports for parent-teacher organization at all 22 Sioux Falls elementary schools. Most groups at minimum provided meals for teachers during conferences. They also put on the science fair, book fairs, classroom parties and sometimes fund additional field trips or school speakers.

Big ticket items purchased by parent-teacher groups included playground equipment, teacher classroom grants (up to $10,000), artists-in-residence and classroom technology.

Parents at R.F. Pettigrew spent about $54,000 on new playground equipment in 2016, adding zip lines and tire swings.

Discovery Elementary School’s parent-teacher group spent $7,000 on “classroom enrichment” in 2014.

The parent group for Sioux Falls’ Spanish Immersion program, Parent Advocates for Spanish Immersion (PASI), spent more than $183,000 on the program, housed in Sonia Sotomayor Elementary, Edison Middle School and Lincoln High School. About $55,000 went to hire Spanish-speaking interns to support classroom learning.

John F. Kennedy Elementary dissolved its parent-teacher association in 2016, but the school still holds an annual fundraiser to bring in money for classroom parties, extra technology and t-shirts for the school’s bullying prevention program.

“It provides a lot of extras that wouldn’t be there otherwise,” Principal Patty Vincent said.

It’s easy to see the differences a strong parent group makes.

At Lowell, Principal Diane Kennedy is starting a small parent-teacher organization after four years of trying. Last spring, she recruited a couple of parents to help put on a party for outgoing fifth-graders. It’s a small effort, but Kennedy hopes it will take off.

Before becoming principal, Kennedy taught at Harvey Dunn Elementary, a school whose parent-teacher association spent $16,300 on average for the last 5 years.

“They were raising money to buy guided reading books, or they’re raising money to buy playground equipment, or they’re raising money to enhance classroom things for teachers,” Kennedy said. “Coming here, we didn’t have that, so it required us to be a little more creative.”

Lowell partners with local churches, which provide meals for teachers during parent-teacher conferences. It’s not the catered meals she remembers as a teacher at Harvey Dunn, but it’s a step up from a brown bag.

Parent organizations also help create a sense of community in school buildings, said Matt Johnson, PTA president at Susan B. Anthony Elementary. Johnson’s vice president, Amy Gulbranson, recalled a few years prior when Longfellow and Mark Twain schools merged into the new Susan B. Anthony building.

“Teachers who came from Longfellow — they weren’t used to us,” Gulbranson said. “You don’t have that sense of community (without a parent-teacher organization).”

There are many reasons why schools don’t have parent groups.

In some cases, a group dissolves after the president leaves and no one is left to fill the role. Other times, schools are unable to find volunteers or a parent with the time to start a group.

“People have more money than time,” said Holly Gergen, a parent at John F. Kennedy Elementary and former parent-teacher association member before it dissolved.

Discovery’s group has been on the verge of canceling events because they can’t find parents to help, said President Andrea Hawley. Even R.F. Pettigrew struggles to find parent volunteers to execute activities supported by its large budget.

“It’s rare to see a family where both parents aren’t working,” Gergen said. “Your stay-at-home moms just aren’t there anymore.”

At Lowell, Kennedy had to educate parents as to what a parent-teacher organization is before she could get buy-in to start one. In her first year at the school, she handed out sheets at the beginning of the year asking parents if they wanted to join.

She received a stack of papers in response, but when she began to call and invite parents to the first meeting, she was met with some confusion.

“They’re like, ‘Oh is that what this is? I’m not interested’ and hung up,” ”So I just don’t think they know what it is and understand that they can have a voice in their kids school and what that can look like.”

Schools without parent-teacher organizations aren’t completely on their own.

Sonia Sotomayor Elementary “adopted” Hayward Elementary School. It’s a solution recently promoted by Richard Reeves, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Brookings Institution and author of “Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do about It.”

“By donating to your own school PTA you are likely exacerbating inequality. By sending half of this money to needier kids, you balance things out a little,” Reeves wrote.

Businesses and churches also offer extra support and volunteer help to schools. School board member Todd Thoelke said Hegg Realtors, where he is an agent, helps Susan B. Anthony with its annual knowledge bowl fundraiser, and Eugene Field partners with a local church for conference meals.

Earlier this year, the Sioux Falls Storm raised money to “level the playing field” for schools without parent-teacher groups to orchestrate fundraisers.

Title 1 schools also get on average $5,000 per year to hold parent events.

At Lowell, parent Tuppence Cruz hopes their fledgling organization can someday match the kind of playground upgrades and other extras schools like Pettigrew provide. She dreams being able to raise $10,000 in a year, but for now is happy to have a group to vent about parking struggles and throw a party for fifth graders.

“We want to show that we’re trying to help,” Cruz said.

And she hopes more help will come.


Information from: Argus Leader,