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Local: Education

Montgomery officials: Private donations to schools lead to inequality

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Local,Maryland,Education,Rachel Baye,Montgomery County

A group of Montgomery County lawmakers is worried that private donations for scoreboards, gardens and sound systems at public schools are unfair to students whose parents can't raise the same funds.

In a letter to School Board President Christopher Barclay, the County Council's Education Committee asked the board to reconsider the decade-old policy that allowed Damascus High School's Athletic Booster Club to raise $110,000 for a new scoreboard, a purchase the County Council approved earlier this month, and Winston Churchill High School to spend $80,000 upgrading its scoreboard last school year.

"It's not just about capital projects, but it's about all kinds of inside-the-classroom projects, like Promethean boards, labs, all kinds of things that private fundraising is able to purchase for some schools," Councilwoman Valerie Ervin, D-Silver Spring, and chairwoman of the Education Committee, said when the council approved Damascus's scoreboard. "Other schools do not have the same kind of reach, and so we believe this creates inequities that are completely tied to, some would say, why there's an achievement gap in certain areas of the county."

A sample of donated projects
School Project description Funded by Amount
Winston Churchill High School Scoreboard upgrade Booster Club $80,000
Clarksburg High School Electronic message display School Independent Activity Funds $30,100
Clarksburg High School Dugouts Booster Club $30,000
Paint Branch High School Electronic sign School Independent Activity Funds $28,565
Poolesville High School Press box and storage shed Booster Club $25,000
Seneca Valley High School Scoreboard School Independent Activity Funds $22,336
Cashell Elementary School Playground improvements Dannon grant $20,000
Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School Replace electronic sign School Independent Activity Funds $18,000
Potomac Elementary School Redesign all-purpose room Parent Teacher Association $10,000
North Bethesda Middle School Eight hand dryers School Independent Activity Funds $8,000
Cashell Elementary School Courtyard structures and plantings School Independent Activity Funds $6,500
Monocacy Elementary School Sound system in all-purpose room Parent Teacher Association $5,000
Montgomery Blair High School Rain garden Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection $5,000
Seven Locks Elementary School Landscaping Educational Foundation $5,000
Burning Tree Elementary School Upgrade lounge Parent Teacher Association $4,000
Flower Hill Elementary School Courtyard/gardens Lowe's grant $3,500
Burning Tree Elementary School Raised vegetable beds Parent Teacher Association $2,500
Forest Knolls Elementary School Container gardens Whole Foods Market/Audubon Naturalist Society $2,500
Garrett Park Elementary School Container gardens Whole Foods Market/Audubon Naturalist Society/GreenKids $2,500
Tilden Middle School Wall mural School Independent Activity Funds $2,500
Robert Frost Middle School Organic garden Silver Diner $2,000
Bannockburn Elementary School New school sign Parent Teacher Association $1,300
North Bethesda Middle School 220V outlet in main office School Independent Activity Funds $800
Source: Montgomery County Public Schools

Current policy allows parent and community organizations, private organizations, businesses and non-Montgomery County government bodies to pay for projects for which the school system is not required by law to pay. They could not pay for renovations that create more student capacity or modernize classrooms, for example. Any projects that cost more than $50,000 must be approved by the School Board before fundraising begins, and the County Council has to approve all projects for funding, no matter the funding source.

Council members have not offered suggestions of how to change the policy.

In addition to scoreboards, PTAs and booster clubs have raised money for sound systems, electronic signs and many gardens. Last month, the council approved Wootton High School's request to spend $1.1 million on new turf fields, and last year, Clarksburg High School's booster club spent $30,000 on baseball dugouts.

"It gives you the opportunity for different communities to do what they would like to do for their school," Barclay said. "The issue is making sure that it doesn't give a school a particular advantage."

He would not say whether the policy needs to change.

County Councilman George Leventhal, D-at large, whose son plays football at Montgomery Blair High School, suggested PTAs could be required to give a small portion of the funds they raise to schools without similar resources. He pointed to Wheaton High School, where football spectators have to keep score in their heads since there is no scoreboard.

But the improvements that parent groups pay for have no impact on the quality of a school's instruction, said Kristin Trible, vice president of the PTA at Damascus High School.

"When we're talking about minor -- minor -- capital improvements such as a scoreboard, if the community can come together and raise money to support a community school, it seems like a valid thing to do," she said.

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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