Money from nothing?

Trustees float fund-raising ideas

Chico Unified School District Trustee Scott Huber wants to raise money for Chico schools, and, “The old ways don’t work anymore.”

Huber spent part of one recent weekday surveying shoppers outside the Safeway on Mangrove Avenue, and Trustee Anthony Watts polled people at a Saturday Farmers’ Market. The following week, Huber met with businesspeople and political leaders about how they can help schools out financially.

Community members no longer can ignore the school funding crisis, Huber said. “The state story has finally reached critical mass,” he said. “It’s odd to say, but I’m really, really enjoying this problem that we’re having. It’s creating all this energy.”

So far, trustees’ ideas have ranged from asking voters to approve a parcel tax to letting businesses advertise on campus in exchange for money or services.

“I believe this community has the ability within itself to raise a million a year,” Watts said.

While some board members were initially excited about the idea of a tax levied on property owners, their enthusiasm has tempered during the last few weeks. Not only would volunteers need to muster $100,000 for a campaign and special election, they’d have to use a highly managed, keep-the-"no"-voters-home strategy to win over more than two-thirds of voters.

“I’m a lot less sure that a parcel tax is the way to go than I was two weeks or a month ago,” Huber said. “I think that the public wants to see that we’ve exhausted other ways of doing it before we try a parcel tax,” he said. Also, local Republican leaders like Assemblyman Rick Keene have told trustees they would fight a parcel tax.

A quicker option would be traditional fund-raising efforts, already being done at school sites, in which donors would pledge cash, goods or services. Watts has suggested accepting online donations via PayPal or even holding a telethon.

At its Jan. 21 meeting, the Board of Trustees put off considering the hiring of the North Valley Community Foundation to manage any funds raised.

The CUSD had its own education foundation in the mid-1990s, but it was putting more money toward administering it than the organization brought in. Watts and Huber now say a foundation with a paid director was the wrong approach. “Where is the logic in handing somebody $60,000 and saying, ‘Go raise money?'” Watts said. “I believe a foundation should be bootstrapped. It should start out poor.”

Trustees also acknowledged that donors would be more likely to donate to special programs rather than toss money into the CUSD’s general fund.

Huber especially is convinced that partnerships with charity- and publicity-minded businesses is the answer, whether through cash donations (he’s already secured $2,000), advertising agreements or the use of “scrip"—when a charity receives a portion of the proceeds from the sale of certificates that can be used as cash at certain businesses.

The district has long had what Superintendent Scott Brown characterized as an “administrative preference” against corporate sponsorships—Pepsi scoreboards and the like. There are inherent ethical pitfalls in advertising to a young, captive audience in a publicly funded forum. Also, Brown added, “I’ve been unaware of a corporate sponsor that had any real money attached to their offer.”

Huber said he’s probably the board member most open to corporate sponsorships of schools. “My threshold is probably higher. I’d probably be more open to corporate sponsors that include things like soft-drink companies.” In ad sales before becoming a real-estate agent 10 years ago, Huber said, “You develop this mindset where everything is a marketing opportunity.”

Finally, the idea of wage concessions—voluntary pay cuts by school employees—was broached in the trustees’ surveys. The figure mentioned was 3-4 percent given up for two to three years, a tall order when many teachers already spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars of their own money on classroom supplies.

“Teachers are dead set against it,” said George Young, president of the Chico Unified Teachers Association. “It messes with teachers’ retirements, you never get it back and there’s no need for it. A wage concession is like a tax on teachers. It’s not gonna happen.”

Trustee Steve O’Bryan believes community fund-raising will help with some programs, but it can’t backfill the entire budget. “It’s an ongoing issue,” he said. “We’re talking $1.8 million this year and $2.7 million next year. It’s a lot of money.”