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Has School Fundraising Gone Too Far?

With budgets trending leaner and meaner, school fundraising is a bigger priority than ever, yet parents are getting fed up with feeling obligated to pitch in. What's the lesson here?
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girl fundraising for school

When the school district in Mount Vernon, New York, faced a dire budget crisis, officials decided to eliminate all high school sports teams for the 2008-2009 school year.

Parents were outraged. Students were devastated. In this working-class Westchester County community, sports are a crucial way to keep kids in school.

To the rescue: the Mount Vernon Educational Foundation. Like similar organizations around the country, it was formed by parents specifically to raise money for enrichment programs. The coaches and school district asked the group, started in 2003, to spearhead a fundraising campaign to restore the highly ranked athletics lineup.

The response was swift—and awesome. A rival high school contributed $800 from ticket and raffle sales. Former Mount Vernon residents Denzel Washington and Ben Gordon of the Chicago Bulls made highly publicized donations. A couple from a neighboring community asked that wedding guests give money to the foundation rather than buy registry gifts, netting more than $15,000.

In the end, nearly $1 million was raised and the kids were back in action. The following year, the school district lost some middle school teams, but managed to find money in its budget to preserve sports at the high school level.

"The goal was to keep the athletes in school, help them graduate and attend college," says Ronnie Cox, president of the foundation.

There was no question of going back, hat in hand, to ask for more private donations.

That's because while it can be relatively easy to whip up support for a one-time campaign, it's much harder to score big donations on an ongoing basis.

"I made it very clear to the school board and the superintendent that this was a one-time emergency that should not have to be repeated," says Cox. "It's the responsibility of the school board and superintendent to manage the resources to meet the community's needs. The foundation will partner with the school district, but not replace it."

The Mount Vernon story exemplifies the best and worst of school fundraising in these tough times. People can be incredibly generous. But you can't repeatedly ask everyone to open their wallets.