School PTOs play key role in technology funding
A year after the failure of an effort to launch a citywide fund-raising campaign, technology in Newton’s schools is still being paid for by a patchwork of city money and donations collected by parent-teacher organizations.
A Globe review of tax documents filed by the PTOs found wide disparities in fund-raising abilities between schools, and major gaps in technology spending between elementary schools.
During the three school years between the fall of 2009 and the spring of 2012, elementary school PTOs reported spending $809,518 specifically on technology for students at 12 of the city’s 15 elementary schools. Nearly half of the total was concentrated at just three schools: Cabot, Angier, and Mason-Rice.
The top fund-raiser was the PTO at Cabot Elementary School, which has 419 students enrolled this year; the group reported spending $167,077 on technology during those three school years. During the same period, the PTO at Countryside Elementary School, which serves 457 students, reported spending nothing on technology.
“We’re not in the most affluent section of Newton, clearly what we generate for revenue isn’t going to be as much as the other school systems. So, certainly, you have an equity issue,” said Countryside PTO treasurer Joe Flaherty. “I guess the big question is, why is it up to the PTOs to provide technology? Why isn’t the school system providing technology for the classrooms?”
The three-year period was the most recent for which filings were available for nearly all schools.
During that time, the city’s school district spent a total of $3.7 million on technology: $350,000 per year on repair and maintenance, the rest to buy new instructional and administrative hardware and software. Currently, PTOs contribute about $350,000 per year to the district for technology, according to school officials.
The district is ramping up its technology spending, though Deputy Superintendent Sandra Guryan acknowledges that PTO funds remain “incredibly important.”
In the 2012-2013 school year, the district spent $2.3 million on technology, including $1.2 million to purchase 500 student and 260 teacher MacBook Air laptops, 183 student iMacs, and a wireless network upgrade, among other items, Guryan said. This year, the district increased its base budget by $220,000 to bring the annual funding to $1.4 million in recurring funds for technology purchases.
“I think that the school district has come through a very challenging fiscal time, where we had to make very difficult choices, so we did the best we could with technology,” said Guryan. “Often we had to choose staffing over equipment over a period of years. And now we’re in a somewhat more stable time, so we’re trying to gradually increase.”
A property tax increase approved by voters last year included $77,500 for technology in this school year’s budget.
Superintendent David Fleishman stressed that while there are some differences in how much technology the elementary schools have, the district is focused on closing gaps. This year, for instance, the district is targeting kindergarten and first-grade classrooms to ensure they all have at least five computers or tablets, he said, and in the past year, all elementary school libraries have been brought up to the same standard of at least 22 computers or tablets.
He also pointed out that some PTOs may make major technology purchases every several years, which would not necessarily be captured by a three-year spread.
“There are going to be times, yes, when a classroom’s going to have a couple more computers than other classrooms, or a teacher has more access’’ to computer carts than another teacher, Fleishman said. “Am I pretty confident that most experiences are pretty consistent and equitable? Yes.”
School and PTO officials agree: technology is no longer an “extra,” it is a necessity for a modern classroom. But it is not capped by the district’s equity policy, which limits a PTO’s spending on certain types of expenses, such as books for the school’s library.
The equity policy applies only to elementary schools, and stipulates that the school district is responsible for equalizing inequalities among schools caused when a PTO cannot or does not spend on technology.
Ideally, said School Committee chairman Matt Hills, technology spending by PTOs would be capped.
“But the reality is, we have long had a system in place where some of our technology spending comes from PTOs. A significant amount,” Hills said. “If we just shut the door overnight on PTO spending for technology, we would be creating issues. Not unsolvable issues, but issues and problems.
“While everyone can agree, in a perfect world, that every last thing would be funded out of the school budget, like everything it’s a matter of priorities and what gets knocked out,” said Hills. “Which brings us back to why PTOs fund it — which is because there’s a gap.”
In 2011 and 2012, the nonprofit Newton Schools Foundation attempted to launch an ambitious campaign to raise between $3 million and $6 million over three years for school technology by selling the naming rights to public educational spaces, primarily in the city’s two high schools. But the effort never got off the ground.
Now, according to Liz Richardson, copresident of the foundation’s board, it does not raise funds for any technology.
“What Newton public schools is trying to do is move technology as a line item in one of their budgets,” said Richardson. “We consider this actually a really positive change. The more consistent it becomes budgeted, the more consistent it is going to be funded on a year-to-year basis. It should really be part of a school system infrastructure. Because it is.”
Technology spending is a major driver in PTO fund-raising, said Theresa Fitzpatrick, copresident of the Newton PTO Council, the umbrella organization for all of the district’s parent-teacher groups, and a task force is working on a proposal to include technology in the district’s equity policy, so that spending would be limited.
“Now, it’s almost that technology and a laptop is taking the place of a textbook, that’s why we want to include it in the equity cap,” said Fitzpatrick, who is also copresident of Brown Middle School’s PTO.
Last April, the 21 schools that make up the PTO Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for sustainable technology funding, calling the current model “inadequate and inequitable to uniformly deliver core curriculum.”
It is not clear, however, what effect capping technology spending would have on the schools.
“The obvious negative is that if we put in the cap and PTOs stop paying for it, what if nobody pays for it?” said Andrea Steenstrup, who has children in three Newton schools and is a member of the PTO Council task force looking at the equity policy. “It’s a hard question.”
The School Committee’s budget guidelines for the next school year, issued to district administrators last month, include a directive to create a technology funding plan “that addresses equity, reduced reliance on PTO funding, and ongoing technology acquisition and maintenance needs.”
The district has technology standards for all of its schools, said its director of information technology and libraries, Leo Brehm, who said he was optimistic that all schools could be brought up to the standard within two or three years. PTOs work with the schools to make sure their technology purchases fit the long-term vision, he said, but he does not plan on PTO funding while drafting his budget.
In addition to PTO and city money, Brehm said, the district has a three-year partnership with Boston College, which allocates about $100,000 annually for technology purchases.
During the three years between fall 2009 and spring 2012 that filings were available for 12 of the 15 elementary school PTOs, technology spending accounted for about 29 percent of total listed expenditures.
At Countryside, which reported the lowest technology spending over the three-year period, treasurer Joe Flaherty said that PTO officials realized during the 2012-2013 school year that they were lagging behind other schools in technology, and kicked off a major fund-raiser that provided about $80,000 for computers for classrooms and the library. The PTO intends to spend another $20,000 this year, he said.
“It’s incredibly hard” to raise those kinds of funds, he said. “Naturally, parents are trying to do the best they can for their kids. If you live in a more affluent school system, you’re going get more services.”
Four PTOs reported spending less than $45,000 on technology during the three-year period — Countryside, Burr, Bowen, and Lincoln-Eliot.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Cabot and Angier PTOs both reported spending more than $100,000 on technology during the three-year period, and the Mason-Rice PTO reported spending $90,459.
“We have the luck of having a community that’s very engaged,” said Mason-Rice PTO copresident Kim Thurmond. “We have a phenomenal principal, who sets a wonderful tone. He knows all the kids’ names . . . people really feel like they want to support the teachers and give.”
Thurmond said the PTO is in the midst of an effort that began last year to raise $159,000 to buy iPads, laptops, and computer carts for students. Each year, she said, the PTO first budgets its equity-capped expenses, and typically spends the surplus on one of two big-ticket items: playgrounds or technology.
The PTOs at the Zervas, Peirce, Horace Mann, Ward, and Franklin schools all reported spending between $62,000 and $76,000 on technology during the three-year period.
The gaps in fund-raising capabilities shrink at the middle school and high school levels, in part, according to PTO officials, because fund-raising in general drops off in the higher grades.
The city’s four middle schools reported total expenses of $435,135 during the three years, of which $157,810, or more than a third, was itemized for technology.
When the first equity policies were written, said School Committee member Margaret Albright, computers were a “nice-to-have” item. But now, she said, they are a “need-to-have.” Allowing PTOs to fund technology, she said, “sets up a system of haves and have-nots, just by the very nature of it. I don’t think that’s the way to fund something that is a ubiquitous piece of the classroom.”
At Newton North High School, the Parent-Teacher-Student Organization this school year has raised about $100,000, including more than $34,000 collected over the last two months for new Chromebooks, according to treasurer Michele Weinfeld. In the last school year, Weinfeld said, the PTSO spent $93,916 on students, with $19,142.95 going to technology purchases including Kindle Fires, iPads, and iPod Touches.
At Newton South, tax documents show that the PTSO raised and spent under $50,000 annually between July 2009 and and June 2012; copresident Betsy Blagdon said that $1,000 to $2,000 per year goes to technology purchases.
Over the past two years, said Brehm, the district has purchased about $550,000 worth of technology for the school, which had not had a major influx of new equipment since around 2004.
“It’s not possible to raise the amount of money that is now required for technology,” said Blagdon. “There’s only a certain amount that the schools get from the city. . . There’s not always enough for some of the technological enhancements to the curriculum.”
Since the beginning of last month, an anonymous family made two separate donations of $10,000 to the Newton North PTSO to go toward the purchase of Chromebooks, and the PTSO raised an additional $14,335. The money will likely get the school about 70 Chromebook Lenovo laptops as well as carts to store them on, according to the high school’s instructional technology specialist.
“I’m happy that the technology is going to be available,” said School Committee member Albright. “I’m not happy about how we had to get there. I guess there’s a good side and a bad side to it.”