Some of the parent teachers associations in the Shawnee Mission School District are fundraising machines, but not Rosehill Elementary.
“We don’t necessarily have the connections at our school to bring in extra fun rides or extra huge auction items,” said Megan Peters, one of the PTA parents at Rosehill.
So even though the school carnival is the Rosehill PTA’s biggest fundraiser, it’s a pretty simple affair – students can throw a pie at a teacher or win a can of cheap cola playing ring toss. In a good year, the carnival and silent auction can bring in $5,000 for the PTA.
“That money has to sustain us for an entire year, everything from field trips to teacher grants to assemblies,” Peters said. “It has to cover a lot, and that money goes pretty quickly.”
There’s a lot of need at Rosehill – it serves many low-income children – and Peters wishes the PTA could do more, especially when other schools in Shawnee Mission can bring in ten times the Rosehill PTA’s budget with a single fundraiser.
A Facebook fundraiser for Apache Innovation Elementary School in Overland Park kickstarted the conversation about equity in the Shawnee Mission School District. Apache, like Rosehill, is a Title I school that receives federal dollars to help support low-income students.
“Our Parent Teacher Association is stretched thin and our students desperately need a proven program to gain fact fluency in math,” Apache PTA members wrote in the Facebook appeal. “Our school is unable to generate money the way affluent schools do across the district. Those schools, along with their Parent Teacher Associations and school foundations, raise hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. This is simply out of reach for us unless we spread our message beyond our community.”
Apache PTA members declined to be interviewed for this story, but PTA parents at other schools confirmed that they were frustrated, too.
“You’ll find we’re one of the ‘poor’ PTAs, raising roughly $10,000/year,” wrote Kellie Gillespie, a member of the Roesland PTA, in an email. “If you go a few miles east, (there is) a private foundation with a value somewhere in the six figure range. ... Almost all the (Shawnee Mission) East feeders raise enough money to pay for at least one additional staff member at their school.”
No rule against it
Jim Baucom is president of the Shawnee Mission Area Council, a governing board that provides resources to all the PTA units in the district. SMAC doesn’t dictate how PTA money should be spent, just outlines a few rules, like that projects should benefit all students, not just a select few.
“We don’t recommend that PTAs hire teachers or extra aides or things like that. We try to stay away from that,” Baucom said.
But those guidelines haven’t stopped schools that can afford to do so from funding positions with PTA money. Other districts, including Shawnee Mission’s neighbors Olathe and Blue Valley, don’t allow PTA units to do that.
In Blue Valley, there is “a general understanding” that this practice isn’t allowed, spokesman Kaci Brutto wrote in an email.
In Olathe, it’s banned explicitly.
“In our district, we do not allow PTA groups provide funding for staff positions ... it could raise a sustainability issue and certainly a question of equity across the district,” Olathe spokesman Cody Kennedy wrote in an email.
But Shawnee Mission doesn’t consider PTA money to be an equity issue. Spokesman David Smith said that’s because all students should have access to the resources they need to be successful in college and careers.
“Now things that go beyond that that other schools might want to do or a certain groups of parents might have the resources to be able to do, that's fine, but if it comes to something that is critical for our kids to be successful, then we would look at that as our responsibility,” Smith said.
Smith said things like classroom teachers would be the district’s responsibility. But more supplemental programs would be at the discretion – and fundraising capability – of individual schools.
It’s impossible to know just how much PTA money is floating around the Shawnee Mission School District because the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t require small, tax-exempt organizations to report exact dollar amounts. A PTA could bring in $5,000 – or $49,999 – and still file their taxes on a postcard, the 990-N. It’s only when a nonprofit brings in more than $50,000 that the IRS wants details.
In 2016, 11 of the 44 schools in Shawnee Mission had PTA units that reported gross receipts of more than $50,000. Five reported gross receipts of more than $100,000. The Corinth Elementary PTA brought in the most – $310,423.
KCUR compiled this information from a variety of sources, including the IRS Tax Exempt Organization Search tool, Guidestar and paper copies of tax returns requested from individual PTA units. As nonprofit organizations, PTA units must make this information available to anyone who requests it. The National Parent Teacher Association recommends that PTA units keep three years of tax returns on file in the school office, but in every instance, KCUR had to request these copies be made. Though PTA units at 12 schools did not respond to repeated inquiries, KCUR was able to compile the information from other sources for all but two of them, Shawanoe and Sunflower elementaries.
There also is not information for Lenexa Hills, a new school that only opened this year.
KCUR did not analyze the tax returns of private foundations attached to some of the schools.
Except parents at more affluent Shawnee Mission schools don’t see the positions they’re funding as supplemental.
Federal money helps the district pay for extra aides, social workers and instructional coaches at Title I schools. It’s supposed to level the playing field for low-income children. But increasingly, parents at more affluent schools want those positions, too.
“We used to pay for a Spanish program, but last year we went through a process, talking to parents and teachers and principals asking where would this money best be spent?” Shelby Krumm, the PTA treasurer at Corinth Elementary, said. “Unfortunately, we’re in a school district that is not able to support the social-emotional needs of our students.”
She said parents didn’t feel like the one-day-a-week social worker the district was providing was enough. So this year, in addition to a full-time math aide, the Corinth PTA is paying for a part-time social worker. They’d eventually like to make the position full-time.
“I feel like regardless of what's going on socioeconomically in our kids' homes, I think all of our kids have social emotional needs,” Krumm said.
The desire for social-emotional support came up in conversations with PTA parents at other affluent Shawnee Mission schools. The Belinder PTA pays for a part-time guidance counselor with the money it brings in – $161,959 in 2016.
“It’s not a zero free- and reduced-lunch population,” said Judith Deedy, a former PTA president at Belinder. “It’s not a zero in need of a counselor population. It’s not so clearly haves and have-nots. It’s a little grayer than that.”
Though there is no organized, intradistrict effort to spread the wealth in Shawnee Mission, schools like Belinder have tried to help out less affluent PTA units by donating proceeds from a silent auction item.
Peters, the PTA parent from Rosehill, loves the elementary school her daughter attended and son currently attends. She didn’t know what a Title I school was when her family bought their house.
“I went to kindergarten roundup, and they gave a presentation on the school demographics,” Peters said. “I was actually really grateful to be in that environment because I felt we could give more there and be a bigger part of the community there than we could’ve been at a more affluent school.”
But there are challenges, too. A lot of Rosehill families just didn’t have much to give the PTA.
“Time affluence is definitely a thing,” Peters said. “It’s difficult when you have a school population where parents are living beneath the poverty line, possibly working multiple jobs – they just don’t have time, and they certainly don’t have the money.”
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.