Seattle schools are increasingly relying on parent donations to pay for a variety of expenses, including teacher salaries. But parent groups in wealthy parts of the city raise vastly more than those in poorer areas, raising fairness questions.

Share story

Step into Madison Park’s McGilvra Elementary School and you can’t help but notice the evidence of an incredible parent-fundraising operation.

Sure, there are the traditional contributions: library books, art supplies, hallway decorations. But parents here also help fund a math teacher, a reading specialist, an art instructor, a computer trainer and a full-time counselor.

The total price tag last year: $393,950.

McGilvra is not unique in the Seattle public-school district.

Responding to state budget cuts and other factors, Seattle parent-teacher associations (PTAs) are funneling several million dollars into the city’s schools each year, some of it supporting a couple dozen employee salaries, according to budget documents provided by the district.

While parent contributions have bolstered Seattle school budgets for years, the eye-popping sums of recent years have added another component to the classic debate of whether all students are receiving an equal education.

There is no districtwide database documenting PTA fundraising by school, but it is clear that parent groups in wealthy parts of the city collect hundreds of thousands more than those in poor areas. The money — raised through everything from sales of baked goods or Christmas trees to black-tie auctions — can go toward almost anything, from classroom teachers to building maintenance, as long as the school principal accepts it.

Members of the PTA-fundraising powerhouses say they are simply balancing out a public-funding formula that allocates significantly more money to low-income schools. But others argue that poor schools get more funding for good reason and that large parent contributions, while well-intentioned, make an already inequitable system more inequitable.

“The ability of some schools to raise thousands and thousands of dollars to fund teacher positions creates an education system that is separate and unequal,” said Elizabeth Lowry, president of Franklin High’s parent group, which garners about $3,000 per year. “A parent’s job is not just to make sure that his or her own child has every educational advantage. Parents should work to make sure that all students have a chance.”

It was in that spirit that Bellevue Public Schools — after a long and contentious debate — decided in June to enforce a long-neglected prohibition on using parent donations to fund staff positions. The Washington State PTA board of directors is considering a similar resolution, with a decision expected early next month.

Meanwhile, some in Seattle are pushing a policy used in Portland and Eugene: Pool a portion of parent donations into a fund that is distributed to all schools. While even supporters acknowledge that idea is probably too controversial to be adopted here soon, they say rising contribution levels necessitate a citywide conversation.

“I totally understand the parent that says, ‘Hey, I’m raising the money, I want it to go to my kids,’ ” said Olga Addae, president of the Seattle teachers union. “My question back to them is how to address the inequity. If not us collectively, then who?”

Donations rising

Just 2 ½ miles south of McGilvra sits Leschi Elementary, a diverse school with nearly 10 times the percentage of students receiving federally subsidized free or reduced lunch. Leschi parents haven’t traditionally raised a lot of money.

But that’s changing, said Jennifer Marquardt, co-president of the school’s PTA. Last year the group emphasized parent giving and organized a jog-a-thon and other events, raising $35,000. That’s far less than some PTAs, but it’s some $30,000 more than usual, she said.

Why did the parents do it? Partly, they felt forced into action by diminishing programs, Marquardt said. Because of state funding cuts, the district has slashed about $80 million from its budget over the past three years. And PTA groups, particularly at elementary schools, have picked up the slack.

Parents at other schools attributed their increased success to a new assignment plan that places more students in schools closer to home, increasing the connection parents feel to their kids’ school.

The trend of rising PTA contributions is occurring across the country, said Margaret Plecki, a professor at the University of Washington’s College of Education.

Locally, it’s difficult to quantify the increase because neither Seattle Public Schools nor any statewide organization tracks PTA fundraising by school. The district’s most comprehensive database is a list of donations that PTA groups ask to be converted into specific expenditures through the district’s central office, a measure officials say covers 40 to 60 percent of parent contributions.

That number has nearly doubled since 2007. It stands at about $2.17 million a year, according to budget documents.

Those documents also show clear gaps between PTA fundraising levels at different schools.

Fundraising gaps

So far this school year, four of the district’s nearly 100 schools make up more than one-third of the expenditures. They are all elementary schools in wealthy areas: McGilvra, of Madison Park ($240,280); Queen Anne’s John Hay ($215,077) and Coe ($180,000); and View Ridge ($195,000) in Northeast Seattle. Other elementary schools at the top include Adams, John Stanford, Laurelhurst, Loyal Heights and Stevens.

Those totals dwarf sums raised by PTAs in other Western Washington school districts, many of which reported that their top schools raised $50,000 or less. At the same time, dozens of Seattle schools, mostly in the South End, don’t appear on the list because they don’t have PTAs or don’t raise enough to go through the central office.

The disparity goes back to the 1990s, when parents at wealthy schools upped their fundraising to make up for a decrease in district money resulting from a new funding formula that gave more to low-income schools.

Susan Sweeney, co-president of the Hay Partners Board, said parents at her school don’t like fundraising but are “taking one for the team” by at least partially making up for the uneven funding.

Indeed, as large as fundraising amounts are at schools such as Hay, they rarely come close to offsetting the differences in the district’s weighted formula, federal Title I funding and other programs benefiting poor schools.

But advocates for low-income schools point out that those funding sources come with strict requirements. So while poorer schools have little control over how to spend the extra money, parents at wealthy schools get to choose what will be most beneficial for their children. And schools in the middle get neither higher district funding nor large fundraising.

“Of course it’s unfair. Of course it is,” said Bill Crawford, president of the Roxhill Elementary PTA, which typically raises less than $5,000 per year. “That’s the way the world is.”

Crawford added that parents at his school view their volunteer contributions as more valuable than money.

Proposed new rules

While the state PTA agrees the most significant contribution parents can make is their time, the group is concerned about financial inequity, President Novella Fraser said.

The resolution the state board is considering would not be binding on local groups but could make some realize that allowing PTA fundraising to be used for employee salaries perpetuates inequity, makes the system depend on an unstable source and lets the state off the hook for fully funding education, she said.

Bellevue, Lake Washington and Issaquah already ban the practice.

Bellevue’s recent decision to enforce its policy came after a heated debate, said Molly Schladetzky, co-president of the Bellevue Council PTA and a member of a community committee that recommended moving toward parents giving to programs that benefit all district students.

A similar shift is unlikely in Seattle, said School Board President Michael DeBell and Lauren McGuire, president of the Seattle Council of Parent, Teacher and Student Associations. They each cited the issue’s political sensitivity and a reluctance to do anything that would limit donations in the current budget climate.

Still, some are hoping to start the conversation.

Among them is School Board member Betty Patu.

“It’s a tough issue,” said Patu, who represents the economically disadvantaged Southeast. “For me the bottom line is, what message are you giving to your kids? Is that the message we want to send — that this school gets everything it wants because it can, but you can’t?”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.