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A different way to restore school budget cuts

How much would you pay to save your kid’s school?

If you thought state budget cuts would significantly decrease the quality of your child’s education — through program eliminations, educator layoffs or both — would you be willing to write a check to help make up the difference? To keep the school’s staff and resources intact?

Fed up with the uncertainty of the 2011 legislative session, but fully aware that education funding reductions are coming, parents at one Las Vegas elementary school have decided to ask one another these very questions.

The Staton Elementary PTO has channeled the spirit of its “empowerment” school and its mascot, the Pioneer, in launching an ambitious fundraising campaign — an effort that, as far as I’ve been able to determine, is the only one of its kind in the Clark County School District.

The Pioneer Pledge Drive is seeking $310 for every student at the school. If the PTO can meet that goal for all of its roughly 800 students, the drive would yield about $250,000, enough to restore the three classroom positions the school expects to lose for the 2011-12 academic year and preserve Staton’s emphasis on science and technology.

“We went through the budget, and we had already written emails and letters and made calls to lawmakers about it,” said Staton PTO President Teri Heinz. “We broke into groups and brainstormed … and we realized that as an empowerment school we can buy a teacher.

“We’re getting pledges of all sizes. Some families have doubled up and pledged for two kids. Some are paying $100 a month for three months. Some can’t afford to pay anything, but they’re volunteering to man tables and collect pledges.”

Staton has had a garage sale and a bake sale, and students are planning lemonade stands to benefit the cause as well, Heinz added.

Parental involvement is the norm at Staton, which has been one of the highest-achieving elementary schools in Clark County since it opened a decade ago. About 80 percent of its students meet or exceed standards in reading, writing, math and science.

“When I came here five years ago,” said Staton Principal Marta Gardner, “we had 100 parent volunteers on campus every week. We’ve always had wonderful parental support. That’s the main reason our test scores are where they are.”

Heinz doesn’t disagree, but she offers another reason for the school’s success, and the main reason for the pledge drive: “We have amazing teachers.”

Such engagement and results might be expected from a school in the suburbs. Located just off Summerlin Parkway and the Las Vegas Beltway, Staton’s enrollment is two-thirds white, and the school is across the street from a handful of gated, upper-class neighborhoods.

But the Great Recession has left no part of this valley unscathed. The middle-class neighborhoods in Staton’s attendance zone have been pummeled by foreclosures. Investors have snapped up those properties and turned them into rentals.

“We have more student transiency today than we’ve ever had,” Gardner said. “It’s a very different time. The demographics are changing. Just because we’re in Summerlin doesn’t make it (the fundraising campaign) easy.”

Indeed, Heinz reports that thus far, the Pioneer Pledge Drive has raised about $17,000 — enough to do some good, but well short of the campaign goal. The drive will continue all summer and into September, ending at the school district’s official “count day,” which locks the year’s funding at that day’s student attendance.

Even that limited success, however, will be enough to make plenty of people in public education uncomfortable. For those who argue that Nevada’s schools have never been adequately funded, the prospect of having some classroom spending decided by parent initiative and income is an affront to educational equality.

“I don’t think I would encourage that,” Clark County School Board Trustee Erin Cranor said of PTA and PTO fundraising to support operational budgets. “What I’ve seen as a parent is some schools have the structure to raise money … but lots of others don’t have that capacity. … You’d dramatically increase the gap between the kinds of schools that are having success and the kinds that aren’t.”

That’s quite a mind-set: Because everyone can’t share these particular dollars, it’s far better for everyone to sink than for some to continue thriving.

If we’re going to criticize Nevada parents for not valuing education and not being involved in their children’s education, the surest way to reverse those sentiments is to ask them to pay beyond the taxes they don’t think about.

I recognize that a surprise, one-time $310 bill is burden for someone living paycheck to paycheck, but a lot of people claiming to just get by spend that much on their cell phones, cable TV and Internet access every month. And boy, do folks get fired up about dropped calls and download speeds.

But education? Hey, it’s free, right? It certainly seems that way if you never see your property tax bill.

Clark County School District parents already cough up fees for everything from clubs, electives and sports to physical education uniforms, lockers and graduation ceremonies. Is $20 or $30 a month really that much to ask for? Anyone willing to prioritize their spending and clip coupons could come up with that much.

The appeal of a direct donation to a school lies in knowing exactly where the money is going. Families and businesses who donate to Staton’s PTO don’t have to worry about their money being sucked into the black hole that is the school district’s central administration.

And Gardner and the Staton staff will have to be more accountable than ever for the money they spend — the success of future Pioneer Pledge Drives will depend on it.

For months, the Clark County School District administration has been focused on lobbying lawmakers for big tax increases, but that’s not working out too well for them. They prefer taxes because they never have to say “please” for the money.

Staton Elementary’s PTO is showing them Plan B. Empower schools. Empower parents. Give them options. Ask them to donate to their schools, ask them what they expect in return, tell them what they’ll get, then deliver it.

How much would you pay?

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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