Oregon schools rely heavily on tax money to educate children.

But when it comes to money from parents and other local supporters, it generally stays where it’s raised.

Buckman Elementary parent Melissa Fox stands in a Southeast Portland ballroom with pink streamers overhead, a stage and bar behind her, and art and memorabilia all around her. 

Buckman Elementary parent Melissa Fox volunteers as logistics coordinator for the school's fundraising auction.

Buckman Elementary parent Melissa Fox volunteers as logistics coordinator for the school’s fundraising auction.

Rob Manning

“The auction is the biggest fundraiser of the year,” Fox said. “We do have teachers that not all schools have the privilege of having, like art teachers and dance teachers, and music - and they’re full-time. They’re not going throughout the schools.”

But close to 30 percent of the money will leave middle-class Buckman and go to Portland Public Schools’ central foundation.   

The foundation, in turn, doles that money out as grants for lower-income schools like Grout Elementary a few miles south of Buckman.

Grout’s $20,000 school foundation grant helps pays for a program called “Playworks.”

“Ready, rock it out  rock it out  winner gets the ball!” yelled Playworks coach, Chelsea Kimura. “Rock it out” is code for rock-paper-scissors. Kimura is helping kids decide which fourth graders get soccer balls first. Playworks looks like PE, but its focus is on behavior. 

Fourth graders at Grout Elementary in Southeast Portland do soccer drills as part of a program called "Playworks." It was partially funded by a grant from the Portland schools foundation, All Hands Raised.

Fourth graders at Grout Elementary in Southeast Portland do soccer drills as part of a program called “Playworks.” It was partially funded by a grant from the Portland schools foundation, All Hands Raised.

Rob Manning

“I teach more of the social skills  how to treat each other out at recess, so everyone is being inclusive and respectful, and things like that,” Kimura said.

The Grout staff sees a difference. But not everyone sees much the effect of school foundations.

 “I can’t say that my child has necessarily benefited,” said Lakeitha Elliott, whose daughter graduates next month from Jefferson High School, after spending most of her school career at low-income schools.

North Portland parent Lakeitha Elliott.

North Portland parent Lakeitha Elliott.

Rob Manning

“Now, I’m fighting to raise funds so that my kids can have a grad party or a prom. I’m soliciting donations so our kids can have the things that other schools are just naturally able to provide,” Elliott said.

Jefferson gets the most money per-student of any comprehensive high school in Portland. Its low-income population helps it win grants, for teachers and programs.

Activities like the ones what Elliott wants tend to come out of local parents’ pockets. And that’s where wealthy schools like Lincoln High School are ahead.

Lincoln’s parent-teacher association and booster clubs shell out for special events, but also for team uniforms and textbooks. Lincoln principal, Peyton Chapman opens the door to a computer lab paid for by the school’s Parent-Teacher-Student-Organization.

Lincoln is downtown Portland's high school, with a student body of more than 1600 students.

Lincoln is downtown Portland’s high school, with a student body of more than 1600 students.

Rob Manning

“Some schools have been able to write grants because of their poverty,” Chapman said. “We don’t qualify for any grants because we’re not 51 percent or more poverty.”

Chapman said that leaves one source of money: “Really, the only resources that we can go after is our parents.”

Portland Public includes Lincoln’s parent foundation money in setting budgets  and it winds up with the least money per-student of any Portland high school.

It’s harder to document how booster and PTA money compares.

Money from PTAs, booster clubs, as well as from activity fees and ticket sales all goes into one account. Lincoln’s account handles hundreds of thousands of dollars  but some of it passes to the district. And the fund doesn’t include parent money the school doesn’t touch like parent-funded field trips.

That worries fundraising critics like Bill Fitzgerald. 

“The fact that no one seems to be able to document the full range of parent fundraising seems to be an incredible omission that needs to be fixed,” Fitzgerald said.

Superintendent Carole Smith says the district is looking to share more among high schools, now that they’re all are in the same league for sports. 

“They may look at doing some kind of equity formula, across sports  athletics and activities,” Smith said.

But PTA leaders caution that too much sharing can reduce donations. North Portland parent, Lakeitha Elliott, says she would rather parents share ideas than share money. But she says that’s not the top priority.   

“In a lot of ways, feels like piecemeal a lot of times, as opposed to if we had a long-term strategy for funding schools,” Elliott said.  “So that no school has to raise millions of dollars to provide a quality education for their kid.”