A $5,000 trip to a remote Alaskan lodge. Tickets to attend the Tony Awards. A dozen “museum-quality” picture frames valued between $500 and $2,000.
These are a few of the items auctioned off during fundraisers by some of the wealthiest parent teacher associations in the New York City public school system.
Meanwhile, at the Science and Technology Academy, a Bronx middle school near Yankee Stadium, the PTA has stuck to more traditional fundraising techniques. “We have tried things like selling snacks or juice to the kids,” said Josephine Ofili, the school’s PTA president.
Department of Education data obtained by The New York World revealed a stark contrast between a few well-funded PTAs and more than 1,000 other smaller organizations across the city. The top 10 PTAs had a median balance of $768,075 in donated funds as of January compared with $1,400 for all the rest.
The disparity in PTA fundraising can widen the gap between schools whose students come from affluent families and those where parents are unable to contribute as much.
“Some schools are and some school aren’t in a position to raise that kind of money, which has led to some gross inequalities,” said Michael Rebell, executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity and a professor of law and educational practice at Teachers College. “But no school should be in a position to have to raise funds to hire teachers to provide art and music. It’s just unconstitutional.”
Department of Education regulations prohibit the use of PTA funds to hire teachers for core subjects, but they can pay for such things as art and music education, sports, professional development for teachers and other things that school budgets cannot afford.
Data released to The New York World show that less than 1 percent of the more than 1,300 PTAs included in the data accounted for more than 21 percent of $22.6 million raised by all the PTAs in the city between July 2013 and January 2014.
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The way schools spend their cash also differs greatly across the city.
At the Science and Technology Academy, which had just under $1,500 on hand in January, most of the cash goes straight to the students, Ofili said. “We give gift bags to graduating seniors and give out gift cards to our students of the month.”
On the other end of the spectrum are schools that raise and spend upwards of $1 million each year.
The top 10 list is headed by the PTA representing the Anderson School, a well-regarded Manhattan gifted program for K-8 students. The school’s PTA fundraising materials says its cash is used to pay for “classroom assistants, technology, sports, arts and more” to fill the gap left by “NYC school budget cuts.” According to the data provided to The New York World, the Anderson PTA spent nearly $700,000 from July 2013 through mid-January 2014.
Meanwhile, another Manhattan PTA, representing P.S. 87, an elementary school located on the Upper West Side, spent about $400,000 during the same period. The P.S. 87 PTA tells parents that the money goes toward paying for substitute teachers, professional development, supplies and furniture, as well enrichment programs like chess and ballroom dancing.
Neither organization responded to repeated requests for comment.
“In most of these cases they are providing the basics. In some really affluent areas, it may be for enrichment but that’s not what I’ve seen,” said Rebell, who was one of the lawyers behind the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which successfully sued the state back in 1993 alleging that New York City schools were not adequately funded.
A Department of Education (DOE) spokesman declined to address the funding gap directly. “Parents are critical partners, and when they are actively involved in their child’s school, everyone benefits,” spokesman Marcus Liem said in response to the New York World findings. “Foremost, students excel, and this administration continues to expand parent leadership workshops and parent-teacher engagement across our schools to create real, tangible gains in every classroom.”
In addition to PTAs, several of the city’s most affluent schools have auxiliary fundraising organizations that are not included in the city’s data.
A group called Friends of Anderson School, for example, supplements Anderson’s PTA fundraising. That group sent the school $35,000 during the 2011-12 fiscal year “to provide assistance and support in the education of the students.” According to the group’s tax fillings, that amount is down sharply from previous school years, when it sent the school upwards of $400,000.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The data, which are based on interim financial reports that PTAs are required to file with the DOE every January, are not complete. Data from approximately 250 schools are missing, including several of the city’s traditional top earners such as P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village, which had $788,000 in assets as of September 1, 2012, and P.S. 290 on the Upper East Side, which had $1.2 million in assets as of July 1, 2012, according to those organizations’ most recent tax returns.
The data included each PTA’s cash balance as of July 2013, the amount it raised and spent between July 2013 and January 2014, and its balance as of January 2014.