Across the Seattle area, schools and parent-teacher organizations auction off prime seats and parking spots for graduation ceremonies to the highest bidders. Critics worry that favoring deep pockets sends a bad message.
The tickets are described as the best seats in the house, close to the action, with unobstructed views perfect for blowing kisses and taking photos. Climbing on bleachers, waiting in line or searching for a parking spot aren’t necessary.
The descriptions — and the minimum bids — could be mistaken for tickets to a Seahawks game or a rock concert. But these days, parents are paying big bucks for prime seats at public-school graduations — from big high-school ceremonies to small kindergarten ones.
The guaranteed seats, which also often come with a reserved parking spot, are auctioned off to the highest bidders. Some schools have done it for years.
The practice is legal — and some school and parent-organization leaders say it’s a necessary part of raising money for their chronically underfunded schools. They point out that they use the cash to benefit all students, regardless of their families’ financial status. Some schools also use the money to cover the costs of the graduation ceremonies themselves.
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But that reasoning doesn’t satisfy everyone. Some parents, education experts and parent-teacher association leaders raise questions about equity.
Tami Hance, a parent at Mount Si High in Snoqualmie, said her school district has fabulous teachers who “have fostered hard work and excellence from our kids for 13 years, showing and teaching them that education is the great equalizer.
“Then, on the day we celebrate their achievements, we show them that it doesn’t really matter how hard you work because the rich families are going to get the best seats and the rest can sit behind them.”
That school auctioned off six sets of eight front-row and second-row seats, with a minimum bid for each set of $800.
Michelle Nims, the Washington State PTA president, said she thought the practice wasn’t allowed because schools are publicly funded.
“At the state level, we would caution any PTA considering doing this and suggest that they work with school and district administrators to understand the policies and laws that apply,” Nims said Friday.
Even though it’s legal, some question whether selling graduation seats is moral.
Beth Gazley, director of the master of public affairs program at Indiana University, has researched school fundraising and how it can contribute to equity gaps among schools.
“Anytime you are messing with the mission or the emphasis of a public school system or the ability for every student and every parent to feel welcome and included, then I think you are treading on what might be considered unethical,” she said.
Still, a number of public schools in at least a half-dozen school districts in the Seattle area are raising money this way. It’s also common in private schools.
In Seattle, for example, four families at Arbor Heights Elementary each paid $225 for a block of four front-row seats at a kindergarten graduation and a fifth-grade graduation.
Arbor Heights parents who organized the auction said those who question the practice aren’t looking at the bigger picture. The funds, they said, will go toward field trips, playground equipment and an instrumental music program.
Many schools also auction off items ranging from puppies to big-ticket European vacations. Arbor Heights offered a vasectomy with a bottle of whiskey for afterward, billed as a “Snip and Sip.”
But some would like to draw the line at putting items tied to a public event up for bid.
To Tom Halverson, director of the master’s program in education policy at the University of Washington, the only way that auctioning off seats makes sense is as a kind of Robin Hood scheme.
“They are taking advantage of people wanting to use their wealth to be able to gain access, and then use it to directly support the people who would be disadvantaged — that is the only way it makes any sense as a good or smart thing to do,” he said. “But it’s hard for me to imagine a principal or an administrator not seeing the public side of this, the image of it not being particularly equitable.”
Some schools, including Shorecrest High in Shoreline, have decided against raising money this way. Johanna Phillips, activities coordinator and leadership teacher, said it’s “a matter of equity.”
But the booster club does auction off four front-row seats for the “Caen Laida” — a year-end assembly for seniors — and seats to the school’s Homecoming assembly, held in October. This year, the winning bidder for the senior assembly paid $500.