PS 29 Scrambles After Embezzlement.
Photo curtesy of Joyce at nycschoolhelp.com.
The PTA at Cobble Hill’s PS 29 is $50,000 short this year, jeopardizing key school programs — including teacher assistants for kindergarten classrooms — and causing tension between parents in different grades for the first time.
School leaders are hoping to raise the money by June 19, when the PTA board votes on next year’s budget, or face possible cuts to an $800,000 budget for the upcoming 2011/2012 year. Teacher assistants, on the potential chopping block, for six kindergarten classrooms in September will cost $81,000. With only five kindergartens last year, the cost was around $60,000. (Incoming parents to the school are encouraged to give what they can if they’d like to see two adults in each class of 25 five-year-olds, with all their attendant tears and tribulations. Secure donation button at end of this story)
“We are behind in fund-raising,” said Natalie Green Giles, president of the Student Leadership Association at 29. “And we have no idea what to expect with this year’s Department of Education budget.”
PS 29’s city budget has been cut $1 million in three years, and more budget reductions are expected. Mayor Bloomberg said in April that around 4,000 teachers would be fired citywide to close a budget deficit, but individual school budgets aren’t delivered until late June.
“We are so afraid of the budget cuts. We don’t know what we’re in for,” Principal Melanie Raneri Woods said at the kindergarten orientation recently.
“It’s absurd that principals don’t get their budgets till June,” Giles said. “If the school budget is decimated we’ll have to divert some of our budget to [the principal] to fill her budget. The more we can bring in, the more we are not flying by the seat of our pants. That’s the pressure.
“Everything is in jeopardy if we can’t bring in the money between now and June 30.”
Troubling the waters this year at PS 29 has been the media-frenzy embezzlement case involving former PTA treasurer Providence Hogan, who is accused of stealing $100,000 from the school over three years and forging documents to cover it up. On this front, good news may be on the horizon: On June 27, if Hogan accepts a plea deal from the district attorney’s office, she’ll provide the court with a check to PS 29 PTA for $41,000, with another $41,000 due at a later date (see our exclusive story).
It’s unclear if this will happen and how it will effect the PTA budget, though it seems obvious it would go far to help close the gap.
Add to this the other recent media frenzy, over local teens who set fire to PS 29’s playground equipment on Mother’s Day while filming a YouTube stunt, in addition to two tragic deaths — one of a student, the other, of a cafeteria cook — and PS 29 has been through the ringer.
“It’s been a rough year,” Giles said. The money worries have made it worse.
“People woke up after our accounting problems and our alleged embezzlement, and started paying more attention. For years it worked, 12 people would show up, it was a well-oiled machine. In a healthy way, people now realize, this is a big deal.”
Several concerns are tugging at the PTA budget, regarding class sizes in various grades. Kindergarten is a priority for many.
“People understand the importance of supporting our littlest learners,” Giles said. “It’s a huge development time. Study after study shows that.”
Yet, classes can have up to 28 students in lower grades and as many as 32 in upper grades. PS 29’s fourth graders have 30 kids per class. “Do we want 32 in there? Absolutely not,” Giles said.
“We don’t want to make value judgments over what’s more important,” she said. “You don’t want a competition between which grades have the most money. We don’t do ‘dedicated’ fund raising for certain grades, we don’t do that. The more that comes in, the easier it will be for people to look at the budget and say, ‘Great, we can do what we need.’ Without that, it’s more of a conversation.
“We’ve never had that before,” Giles said.
While PS 29’s budget sounds large, a big chunk of the income and expenses comes from PTA-run after-school programming. Last year’s PTA budget was $660,000. Some $285,000 was raised by, and spent on, after-school programs, classes and holiday camps. The after-school makes a small profit, and Giles says an “ambitious” goal this year will see a reduction in costs and increase in profits.
The PS 29 PTA holds one to two fundraisers a month and pays for school-wide after-school programs, music, art, a farming project, chess, dance and a program that establishes the school as a Teachers College Reading and Writing Project School. The PTA budget helps keep class sizes down and allows the principal to concentrate her budget on teacher salaries, Woods has said.
The embezzlement case sparked changes at the PTA, which now employs an accountant (the accountant was hired prior to the scandal and discovered the missing money while doing the PTA’s taxes). PTA officers now use a system in which several individuals must approve each check and expenditure.
Schools differ widely in how they operate their PTAs. While some do not rely on PTA funds to bolster programming, others, with 40 percent or more of low income kids, qualify for federal Title 1 funding and can use that money to pay for teacher’s aids and special programs. At the other end of the spectrum, the PTA at Public School 290 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan raised more than $1 million in 2009-2010.
At PS 29, at Henry and Kane, some 28 percent of the population receives free or reduced lunches, so the school does not quality for Title 1 funds.
The PTA has long partnered with the principal to supplement school services.
“Schools like ours have become public-private partnerships,” Giles said. “The non-profit PTA is an equal partner in the financial well-being of the school. Schools used to be funded by government, and tax dollars. Now parents are relied on to fund significant portions of the budget.”
See our essay from a PS 29 parent on the role of the PTA.
To donate to the PS29 PTA before June 19, click here to make a secure donation.
Read more about PS 29 fundraising.
Disclaimer: Author has a child entering kindergarten at PS 29 in September, and hopes we can raise the money needed for kindergarten teacher’s aids.