Portland's School Foundations: An Imperfect National Model?

By Rob Manning (OPB)
May 11, 2015 1 p.m.

Oregon public schools get most of their money from taxpayers - one way, or another - whether it's federal, state, or local money. And it's all generally distributed based on student characteristics. That's not the case when it comes to contributions from parents. And some schools raise a lot more than others.


John Eisemann looks over a big brown piano at fifty teenagers.  "Alright, everybody ready? A little slower," he tells them. Eisemann directs multiple choirs at Grant High. He used to be on the risers as a singer at Grant, when there were throngs of singers like him.  "Back in the day, as they say, there were so many, it was dubbed 'General Grant's Army,' especially when they got off the buses," he says.

Tight budgets shrank Grant's choir program over the years. But choir has come back, thanks to parent donations to the local school foundation. About 40 Portland school foundations raise money to pay teachers.

"It not only funded me up to full-time last year, but it also funded a number of other teachers," Eisemann says.  Part of that was - we ended up being the poster-child for the foundation. 'Please make sure to keep this person, next year, by donating to the foundation'."

Grant grew choir with foundation money, but now choir is part of the regular budget. That's freed up foundation money to launch other things: like engineering.

Grant High senior, Grace Goldrich-Middaugh, says this engineering class is helping her plan for college. "After taking the class for a year, I feel like I'm more comfortable knowing more about what I would be doing after college, that I'm thinking about switching into an engineering major."


As Oregon's largest school district, Portland has raked in the most private dollars - about $11 million a year, on average. School foundations raise about one-third of that - money they spend directly on teacher salaries. Most of the Portland district's $500 million budget gets divvied up evenly - or is directed toward high-poverty schools, or kids with specific needs.

But with parent contributions, money mostly stays where it's raised.   The fact that any of it is shared makes Portland an anomaly among the nation's big districts, says Dan Ryan with the Portland foundation, "All Hands Raised."

"Every year," says Ryan," we get several calls about 'how did you pull this off?' 'How is it that in Portland, Oregon, you raise this money, and yet one-third of it is put into a parents' fund and then it's distributed throughout the city."

Each school foundation can keep the first $10,000 it raises. Above that, 30 percent goes into a district-wide fund to benefit less wealthy schools. They get grants of $20,000 or $30,000 dollars.

But the wealthier schools still wind up with big balances. For affluent elementary schools like Alameda, Duniway, and Ainsworth it can be $100,000 a year. Lincoln High School keeps $300,000 a year.

Again, Dan Ryan. "Yeah, you're looking basically at the demographics of different neighborhoods, and what is the capacity of the parent community to mobilize to raise private funds."

The same trends apply for contributions from outside the foundations. Parent-teacher associations, booster clubs, activity fees and ticket sales generate close to $8 million a year, on average, for Portland schools.

Bill Fitzgerald is a teacher-turned-software-developer and Portland school parent. "It actually makes a huge difference in per-pupil funding," he says.

But some school officials point out that low-income schools get federal money and other grants that wealthier schools aren’t eligible for.

Fitzgerald agrees, and says the schools getting squeezed are the ones that are not that poor and not that wealthy. He points out that Portland Public changed policy a few years ago, limiting which schools can get federal money for low-income students.

"As a result of that," he says, " you have a number of schools right in the middle, that lost tens of thousands of dollars, and those schools were hit especially hard.”

Portland Public made that change to target money at schools with the greatest need. District leaders say they look at fundraising every year - especially from foundations and booster clubs, and they say changes could be coming.