Situated along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis’ Longfellow neighborhood, the Dowling Urban Environmental Elementary School offers its students some unique opportunities to engage in learning outdoors.
There’s an outdoor classroom, equipped with electrical outlets. And students get to participate in things like birdwatching to learn about balance and motion in science class and planting seeds in the school’s greenhouse to learn about the local ecosystem.
They also get to burn up energy on a fortress-like concrete playground structure built up around mature trees. It’s an impressive feature — not just because of its size, but because it’s handicap-accessible, replete with ramps, railings and adaptive play equipment.
The playground was designed to serve the school’s significant population of students with physical disabilities. When the school was established in 1924, it was called the Michael Dowling School for Crippled Children. While the name has changed, the school has continued to serve a larger number of special-education students — especially those who use wheelchairs or walkers — because it’s perhaps the most accessible school building in the district: one level, with railings along most hallway walls.
The student body has since diversified. But some of the financing for the new playground has ties to its past. Someone had long ago willed stock to the school. Just last school year, administrators figured out that this stock was the source of the mysterious checks that had been rolling in addressed to the “Michael Dowling School for Crippled Children.”
Since schools can’t own stock, they cashed it in and created a school-specific fund that’s housed at Achieve Minneapolis, the district’s nonprofit partner tasked with managing all of the various funds earmarked for specific schools or programs.
Principal Lloyd Winfield says he and his parents and teachers have been able to tap into this pool of unrestricted money for a number of other longer-lasting purchases as well in recent years — for things like iPads, laptops and math software.
Since that stock accrued over $400,000 — as reported by Gina Rysdon, who manages these school-specific funds at Achieve Minneapolis — they still have a healthy fund to draw from, even when district finances don’t look so great.
This unique fortune, along with the disparities in school resources that it contributes to, isn’t lost on Winfield, who’s worked in various schools across the district during his 17 years as an assistant principal.
“They don’t have alumni who have the kind of stock where they could will it and you could make it last for years,” he said. “To a certain degree you could say, yeah, it’s kind of a guilt feeling, having that. But at the same time, we still have to serve these children to the best of our ability. And if this allows us to have, I guess you would say, better-than-average ability to do that, then why not?”
The fund accounts that Achieve Minneapolis manages are largely parent- and community-generated donations that are earmarked for individual schools, with subaccounts separating out dollars that are restricted to specific programs. Some schools also benefit from school-specific foundation support, often spearheaded by alumni, which also helps cover some of the extras that schools can’t otherwise afford.
The district essentially has no control over how these dollars are generated or spent — a reality that makes it incredibly difficult to pinpoint exactly how much individual schools are benefiting from private donations. And while these funds account for a small portion of the total dollars schools have access to, they can greatly alter the experience students and teachers have at schools across the district. Thanks to a broader donor base, students in wealthier communities often have more perks at their schools.
“I think it illustrates that, in Minneapolis, we have wide disparity between some schools and other schools. And some schools have a broader funding base for the extras and the nice things that you can buy with these kinds of funds,” said Danielle Grant, president and CEO of Achieve Minneapolis, noting that often translates into things like more field trips and food at parent nights at certain schools. “I think it’s part of the funding picture that people don’t talk about much. … You might get the same per-pupil amount at every school, but it’s a different experience.”
What’s the deal with school funds?
Achieve Minneapolis manages over 150 fund accounts on behalf of Minneapolis Public Schools. This includes district fund accounts, as well as school-specific accounts and subaccounts for specific programs or initiatives, as directed by the donor. Private donations to schools used to be managed by the Minneapolis Foundation. Achieve Minneapolis now serves that role, taking in private donations for schools and ensuring that those dollars are spent on the things they were intended for by the donors — whether that be field trips or to support a local theater program.
Schools are restricted from using these funds to pay for staff salaries or benefits. But apart from this rule, the district has no say in how these private funds are used. Nor does it factor these funds into school-budget allocation decisions, says Kerry York-Myles, a district administrator.
“From a district perspective, we know that there are differences. But that doesn’t come into play when we’re making our own budgetary decisions about what resources or supports each school is getting,” she said.
Fund account dollars are generated through a combination of grants, passive fundraising efforts — through charitable efforts at places like Kowalski’s and Target — workplace giving campaigns and company matches, school events and other school fundraising efforts. When asked for a breakdown of fund balances by school, Grant denied MinnPost’s request on the grounds that these are not public funds.
Offering an overview, Rysdon says the various school-specific accounts and subaccounts range from zero dollars to about $100,000 (with the exception of the Dowling school fund). She also provided MinnPost with a breakdown of recent school-specific fund balances by district zone: schools in Zone 1, in the northside, have $174,608 in fund balances; schools in Zone 2, in the southeast, have $586,195 (with the vast majority earmarked for Dowling); and schools in Zone 3, in the southwest, have $659,695 at their disposal.
School principals often solicit parent and teacher input on how to spend these dollars. But they are the ones who ultimately sign off on all withdrawals from their schools’ fund accounts housed at Achieve Minneapolis. These funds have supported a wide range of projects and purchases in recent years, including the student-led “Rename Ramsey” effort to change their school’s name to the Justice Page Middle School; the annual school carnival at the Anne Sullivan community school; Roosevelt High School’s theater program; and robotics programs at Northeast Middle School, North High and Patrick Henry High School.
For parent and community donors who want to retain full authority over how their contributions are used at the school level, some groups opt to manage their own PTA or booster fund outside of Achieve Minneapolis. It’s a mixed bag that can fluctuate from year to year — a structure that makes it hard to get a true look at how much individual schools are benefiting from private parent, community and alumni donations.
“Some totally don’t use us,” Rysdon said. “I’m assuming Barton has a very active parent community. I think they just have their own foundation, their own PTA, and no money comes through us.”
York-Myles says that while the district doesn’t monitor school-based funds housed at Achieve Minneapolis — or have any say in how those dollars are raised or utilized — she and her colleagues look to business and philanthropic partners to help fill in the gaps.
“What we do attempt is when we have funders approach the district looking to either fund particular schools or particular initiatives, is to make sure we are matching those funders’ interests with either school or district priorities and needs — and to help ensure those funds are distributed equitably.”
For instance, the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Minnesota is in the process of rolling out grants to fund some new initiatives at secondary schools in the northside.
“We spent much of 2016 talking to students and teachers and parents about how school could be better for them in north Minneapolis,” said Joel Luedtke, the foundation’s program director. “The two themes that emerge most clearly to us are: better relationships — between students and teachers — and more relevant curriculum.”
In the coming months, they’ll be awarding large grants to a couple of schools, so they can scale up the pilot projects they’ve been working on — things like project-based learning initiatives. He says the foundation shifted its focus on north Minneapolis about two years ago. And even amid recent budget cuts in the district, his foundation believes that “district schools are still the most important schools for a neighborhood,” and feels compelled to stay engaged.
“You have to find ways to do better even in challenging moments,” he said. “I think what we’re trying to create in partnership with the schools — and with the district — is spaces for innovation to take hold … that draws students back to these schools.”
Where do alumni-led school foundations fit in?
Foundations created to supplement school resources and support students at one particular school — often associated by name — are another significant piece of the school funding puzzle that doesn’t make mention during district-level budget discussions. As with the school-specific funds housed at Achieve Minneapolis, that’s because these school foundations operate outside the purview of the district as independent nonprofits.
Nevertheless, they also exacerbate resource disparities at school across the district, with wealthier alumni bases generally managing larger foundation balances. For instance, the Friends of South High Foundation — the oldest and most well-funded — reported a fund balance of nearly $1.8 million for the fiscal year ending last June. The group breaks its support into two buckets: student scholarships and grants for teachers.
The Washburn High School Foundation reported a fund balance of a little over $500,000. The Southwest High School Foundation reported $243,000. And the Minneapolis Theodore Roosevelt High School Foundation reported nearly $700,000. And that’s just a sampling.
The proliferation of school-specific alumni-based foundations is a bit unique to the Minneapolis district. By way of comparison, very few schools in the St. Paul Public Schools district have alumni-supported foundations serving specific schools, says Lisa van der Steur, senior communications and development specialist for the district.
Addressing the disparities
A few years ago, her district did away with a St. Paul Public Schools Foundation — but even when it did exist, it didn’t really manage individual school accounts for schools, van der Steur said. But parent groups have long raised funds to be used exclusively at their kids’ schools, as is the case in many districts. Her job is to work with teachers to find ways to fund their classroom needs no matter how much — or how little — their parents are able to contribute financially, whether that’s through grant opportunities or through online fundraising efforts. In some ways, it’s an effort to mitigate the disparities in parent- and community-generated funds that exist across schools.
Often, she notes, the sense of unfairness fueled by the presence of these sorts of private funds cuts both ways: “Schools that have higher poverty [rates] in their schools, they are eligible for Title I funding. But then we have another school that I can think of that has so few students living in poverty that they have no extra money to do anything, and the parent organization has to raise every penny to do anything over and extra of paying salary and benefits,” she said. “So that’s kind of a big dichotomy.”
Imperfections aside, most would agree that any additional funding to benefit schools is welcomed — even if it’s creating a very different experience for some students than it is for others.
At a recent event hosted by Achieve Minneapolis, where business and community members were invited to shadow a principal for a day and reflect on what they observed, one parent inquired whether anyone had ever considered prompting donors to tack on a suggested donation for a partner school that has less alumni, community or parent support.
“In general, I would like to think that most people would be like ‘If I’m online and I’m giving $25 to my kids’ school, I’ll just make it $30 and give $5 to Lucy Laney or some other school,’” said Grant. “We could figure out a technical solution, if that’s something the superintendent and leadership team thinks is viable.”
To date, York-Myles says the only example of parents and community members banding together like this is a recent one: establishing and contributing to a fund for the Culinary and Wellness department, housed at Achieve Minneapolis, that’s used to pay off unpaid lunch debt.
“I think that was the biggest example that we saw of communities where maybe there weren’t significant overdue balances donating specifically to cover balances for schools in which there was a larger balance, districtwide,” she said.