Community support pours thousands of dollars into schools
Methow Valley schoolchildren and teachers would inhabit a very different world — one without Suzuki violin lessons, college and career counseling, and fewer science field trips — if it weren’t for the contributions of the Public School Funding Alliance (PSFA).
PSFA started 15 years ago to fill gaps in educational programming. “There were threats of cuts to academic enrichment. This was not the education people wanted,” said Jana Mohr Lone, who proposed the idea of a nonprofit to fund public schools. “Methow Valley Elementary was a wonderful place, but there was a lot of talk in the community about worries about the school district.”
Mohr Lone organized parents and community members to explore ways of funding some of these programs. They set a modest goal of $10,000 to ensure that people would trust the idea before they made any grants, said Mohr Lone.
But they raised $30,000 that first year. “It was so remarkable that people were so enthusiastic and so committed, and that they trusted this would be a value to our community,” said Mohr Lone, who became PSFA’s first president.
In its inaugural year, PSFA paid for literacy materials and math and science programs at the elementary school, music equipment for the school band, and tutoring and oil painting at the high school.
Since then, PSFA has funded Spanish instruction at the elementary school and the Let ’Em Ride horseback program for special-needs students, and thousands of books — more than 150 programs and projects in all.
Some programs — such as Classroom in Bloom and the college and career adviser — got their start through a PSFA grant and are now partially funded by the school district. This year, PSFA doubled its contribution to extend the hours of the career and college adviser so she can work with students starting in their junior year, said Laurie Ulmer, PSFA’s executive director.
At the Independent Learning Center, PSFA has funded rock climbing, a unit on healthy relationships, and a community art mosaic. It has also paid for bike racks, renovations to the elementary school library, and computer memory. PSFA has always tried to spread its grants among academics, art and music, and outdoor education, said Mohr Lone.
PSFA’s grants have evolved as needs change. PSFA received a donation earmarked for International Baccalaureate teacher training, which accounts for one-third of its budget this year, according to Ulmer.
PSFA also sets aside $2,000 each year for needs that arise during the school year.
PSFA works closely with the school district before making any funding decisions. The district tries to pay for basic education on its own and looks to PSFA to support enhancement and enrichment, said Tom Venable, superintendent of the Methow Valley School District.
PSFA occupies a unique niche, although there are similar models in other school districts around the state. “One of the things we really tried to do was be sure we weren’t supplanting state funding — things the state is obligated to pay,” said Mohr Lone.
“We’re not telling the school how to run programs or whom to hire. We leave that to the school,” said Ulmer, who said PSFA stipulates that the principals approve all grant requests before they are submitted to PSFA.
Under its by-laws, PSFA’s board includes at least two student members. Students offer ideas and perspective on the programs and vote on what to fund, said Wiley Seckinger, a Liberty Bell High School senior who was invited to join the board last summer. “I think my perspective is a little bit different just because I am a student and I have some differing opinions than some of the board members,” he said by email.
“What I look for personally is if I think the students or teachers will benefit from the grant. I also consider how many students it will reach and if it fits PSFA mission statement,” he said.
Before becoming involved with PSFA, Seckinger said he wasn’t aware of many positive things that would disappear or lose most of their funding. “It’s the small unique things that we all take for granted,” he said.
This year, PSFA will fill an important gap because of changes in the way the state Legislature is funding schools, said Venable. While the district is receiving an additional $400,000 from the state in the 2018-19 school year — the majority for salaries and benefits — the district will not collect the full amount approved by voters in the maintenance and operations levy. The levy would have provided $1.9 million this year, but that will be cut by more than $300,000, said Venable.
“PSFA’s role has always been important, but now it’s critical,” said Venable. “We’re very dependent on PSFA and other community-based partners to sustain the level of programming that currently exists.”
In its 15 years, PSFA has raised $900,000, primarily from people who donate just $50 to $100, said Ulmer. PSFA hopes that this year’s fundraising campaign will put it over the $1-million mark for total contributions.
“It is remarkable. It’s really changed the educational landscape. When you pump $80,000 to $90,000 a year into the schools, you really change the programs that are available,” said Ulmer.