Public-private partners try to bridge the school funding “G a p”

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By Bill Shilstone

A dedicated band of public education advocates in the Redwood City Education Foundation used to just roll up their sleeves and do all the hard work to raise extra dollars for the schools. Now they have switched to a more strategic approach to assault the rich-poor inequities of the state’s property-tax-based school funding formula that is so disadvantageous to the Redwood City district.

Foundation leaders call it “The Gap,” a $1,200 shortfall between what the state formula provides and the actual annual cost of educating a student in the Redwood City district. For comparison, the neighboring Woodside Elementary District is allowed almost double the $9,420 the Redwood City district receives.

To date, the contributions of the 35-year-old foundation have been modest, but it is raising its sights — and goals — with several new initiatives aimed at building community support and attracting serious corporate Silicon Valley money. In the past two years, the board size has doubled, from eight to 15. The foundation hired its first executive director and set a goal of doubling its revenue this year, to $1 million. That’s quite a leap from the $300,000 given to the district for the 2017-18 year.

Traditionally used for early-grade music instruction, foundation money now also pays for teacher training, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) instruction, and other class-size reduction measures such as instructional aides and small-group resource teachers. Funds are distributed equitably among the district’s 16 schools and used to meet needs identified by district Supt. John Baker, advised by individual site councils. Adding Baker to the board to help match money with need is part of the foundation’s new look.

“Teachers are trying to help students be all they can be. We gather resources to help them do that,” said Executive Director Kathleen Harris, who began her career as a middle school teacher in San Francisco and took the Redwood City job in June. “Schools can’t do it alone. Education foundations are about partnerships to protect a community asset. We make sure companies know what their responsibilities are. It might be science kits, or health education, or, through their employees who live here, volunteering and supporting tax and bond issues.”

Donors who are answering the call include the Redwood City developer Jay Paul Company ($100,000 per year for five years) and Stanford University, which is building a 2,700-employee campus on the former Ampex Corp. site. The Paul and Stanford donations, the largest the foundation gets, pay for the new executive director.

“Supporting education in Redwood City was a priority for both Stanford and the city,” said Steve Elliott, managing director for development at Stanford who negotiated the university’s project application. “So among other benefits, we committed to making a $50,000 contribution to RCEF for five years.”

Bristol-Myers Squibb wants to develop scientists, Harris said, so in addition to giving $35,000, it conducted training for teachers on how to coordinate math and science. Oracle gave $25,000 and wants teachers and their students to understand technology.

Google won this year’s Redwood City-San Mateo County Chamber of Commerce Golden Apple award for contributions to Redwood City education ($45,000). In accepting the award, Google’s Rebecca Prozan noted that the company “wants to build creators, not just consumers.”

Some of the other donors and their level of giving in 2017: above $10,000 – Premia Capital, Edward Jones Investments, the City of Redwood City Cultural Commission and the Scandling Family Foundation. Above $5,000: Blue Oak Foundation. Total contributions from board members were $64,000. Total giving in 2017 was over $200,000.

It’s not all big-bucks donations. One Redwood City resident gives a small amount from each paycheck to the foundation. “I give because I know the district is underfunded by the state and cannot provide all the learning opportunities children need,” she said.

“There are thousands of ways to support schools,” Harris said. “That way is meaningful for her. We ask businesses what is meaningful to them. ”

Some foundations, including the Eustace-Kwan Family Foundation ($750,000 this year) and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative ($250,000), give independently of the RCEF, but Harris hopes to coordinate the effort. “Foundations can benefit from feedback we can provide on what is happening to their money and what the results are. We can coordinate goals – that’s community building.”

Harris had 20 years of community building before she came to Redwood City, most recently in Oakland advocating for children in vulnerable populations as CEO of the Youth Ventures Joint Powers Authority, and in Chicago with the Urban League and in the school system’s principal certification program. In Chicago she encountered another community organizer, the pre-presidential Barack Obama. “We raised $50,000 for him at a house party,” she said. “That’s one plate today.”

Before her experience in Chicago, Harris formed her own nonprofit organization in San Francisco that recruited and eventually placed 1,000 minority teachers in classrooms in 34 cities nationwide, “clearing barriers and creating pathways.” Similarly, she said, she was attracted to Redwood City “because I saw potential for applying the resources of the community to create pathways to better opportunities for kids.”

One barrier in that quest, she said, is competing for the community’s attention with myriad communication sources. The foundation’s strategy is a continuing series of small-group talks, including Fireside Chats with Baker, outlining what schools need. There will be a breakfast March 8 for people who want to get involved, with Prozan of Google moderating a discussion with Baker and Redwood City Mayor Ian Bain. Anyone interested is invited to email Harris or board President Marilyn Ezrin (info@rcef.org).

“We’re not trying to tap parents for money, we just want to get them involved,” Ezrin said. She has a master’s degree in social work and is the parent of a student at North Star Academy, which, she said, has a “give-back focus” that produces many RCEF volunteers. “I got involved because I was able to create positive change at my own children’s schools and I wanted to be able to have a positive impact on the community as a whole.” Many of the other board members, a diverse group offering a variety of skills and experience, echo her commitment.

The newest member, Giselle Hale, is a city planning commissioner and a marketing director at Facebook. She hosted an event in February aimed at young families that drew 50 participants. “I believe in early investment, which is why I got involved years before my own daughters, ages 4 and 18 months, will attend.”

The longest-serving member is Jason Galisatus, a Stanford employee who is a product of district schools. “I joined the board my senior year at Stanford because I wanted all students in the district to have the same opportunities that helped get me where I am.”

The vice-president is Whitney Glockner Black, a Roosevelt parent who works for ZScaler, an internet security firm. “We were able to transition from a ‘roll up your sleeves’ volunteer board to one that guides the fundraising, policy and strategy for the organization.”

Eric Takaha, retired from Franklin Templeton Investments and a parent of high school and college-age children, joined in 2016 as treasurer. “It seemed to be a great fit for me.”

Others with finance backgrounds are Connie Guerrero, also a planning commissioner, and Ed Yee of Oracle, a North Star parent.

Board members Gabriel Swank and Leslie Stafford work in marketing. The foundation had advertised for a fundraising race director on Next.Door.com, and Swank, who had experience in the field, first got involved by answering the ad. The foundation conducts two fundraiser races each year. Stafford is president of SEPTAR, an organization dedicated to children with special learning needs.

Colleen Wilson, with children at North Star and Roy Cloud, is head of corporate communications at the biotech company Actelion. “I brought my passion for education into my professional life by developing corporate partnerships with public school districts, and I’ve seen how those programs can create opportunities for students.”

Shannon Petrello is director of grants and marketing for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula.

Michele Harkov, a district parent of three and an agent for Alain Pinel, has conducted “coffee talks” for 80 realtors “to help them better understand our schools so that they can educate their clients looking to buy on the Peninsula.”

Jeannie Karl is a North Star parent who works for Genentech.

Mike Wells, a Google engineer and parent of daughters at Kennedy and Adelante, joined last year because “I wanted to help make an impact across all schools, and I liked the direction the organization is heading, including the hiring of the new executive director.”

Ezrin’s summation: “We’re a small nonprofit start-up with one paid employee, — but we have lofty goals.”

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