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PTA Equity Fund Part 1
A Brief Exploration of the PTA Equity Fund Roll-out
FOIA Gras is a free newsletter run by Tom Hayden that explores various topics in local Evanston Governance, especially around School District 65 (Evanston/Skokie). I publish and share all my data and reports. Subscribing is free, so please subscribe or share!
The PTA Equity Project (PEP) is a fund that seeks to approach a problem in many school districts; within a single city boundary, some school PTAs have access to significant fundraising resources and others do not. This results in an unequal distribution of resources to kids; some kids get yearbooks, t-shirts, and well funded field trips, while others do not. This is a well-known and well-studied problem.
It works like this; every June, each PTA sends their entire reserves (minus $5,000) to the central fund. This fund runs a calculation with “equity” and “equality” math, such that funds are redistributed from wealthy schools to less wealthy schools, identified by the percentage of free lunch recipients. There is a YouTube video on the program that covers most of the technical details on the distribution and discussions regarding equity.
Across the District, the project has access to significant resources. According to the Evanston Community Foundation’s documents (they manage the fund), the fund had net assets of about half a million dollars in 2020 and 2021.
Last year the fund distributed $483k to individual PTAs, and this year that number is $461k. On average, this ranges from somewhere between $70-$100 per kid.
The roll-out of this program appears to have been a bumpy ride. Below is a story, consolidated from my own research of the roll out at a single school. I am not affiliated with this school in any way and have no information other than what is available online publicly.
Case Study: Walker Elementary
Walker Elementary maintains very well-done monthly meeting minutes and posts them to their WordPress blog. In April 2020 (Early COVID), the PTA Equity Project submitted a request to various PTAs around the District requesting 75% of their reserve funds. Below are notes from the Walker PTA Meeting on the subject.
The comments from parents, at least in the meeting minutes are mostly supportive, but there is some criticism on the lack of clarity in the ask. PEP was asking for an emergency $35,000 check with unknown controls or oversight, other than “We don’t know how this will be spent.” Consider the Q&A attached to the document, which explains the lack of restrictions on the fund.
Q) What are the parameters or restrictions for receiving funds?
A: We know that we can’t anticipate exactly what the needs will be or how they will evolve, therefore we don’t want to make a limited list of what will be funded. We trust our social workers and principals to determine what is an appropriate use of funds. With that said, we are working with the district to make sure everyone providing support for families is working from a robust resource list
The parents were assured this was a one-time ask from the PEP project;
Additional fundraising we do will stay at Walker. This is only a one time ask from the PEP.
PEP’s possible idea down the road is a one big pot fund, but we don’t know when or if that will happen.
The proposal passed with 100% of the group voting in favor to send $29,000 to the PEP fund. A third proposal to send the full $35,000 did not pass.
According to their documents, by June 2020, they had received at least one distribution from the PEP fund, which was $14,000, about half of the money committed. According to the Walker Principal in June 2020;
PTA Equity Project (PEP) Update:
We received $14k, helped 49 families (with store gift cards, modems and routers, and books)
Across D65 over 500 families were helped
The fact that a school district and schools have to do this is an example of systematic racism.
It feels like a bandaid on a big problem. We will ask for more money if there is need. The project was needed and we’re glad to have it, but it’s sad that we live in a society that this is needed
It is unclear whether they received additional funds from PEP during this time or if they ever received the second half of the $29,000 contributed to the fund. It also remains unclear during this time, how much individual schools received. The PEP website does not list any financials prior to 6/30/2021, so spending and distributions during this window are not available. I have reached out to individuals at PEP and have not yet received a response.
By November 2020, the PEP project seems to have changed their tune regarding the one time ask and Walker parents brought to a vote whether to vote on joining PEP for a three year stint. They would be permitted to keep $5,000 in reserves but all funds would go to the centralized PEP One Fund. Then, they’d receive a distribution from that fund for their annual expenses. All fundraising from here out, would go directly to the PEP One fund first and local fundraising revenues would not be permitted. This would mark the end of any private reserves.
This appears to have been quite a heated meeting with large attendance; I am not a Walker parent but 60 people at a PTA meeting is a lot. You can read the meeting minutes at this link.
Eventually, the plan passed 42-14.
Conflict of Interest & Transparency
During this meeting, a point was documented about conflicts of interest among school board members;
Concerned that the two PEP leaders are members of school boards, there is not diverse representation on the board and committee, why is it a rush to do this when we can’t gather for in person town halls, and we are making a three-year commitment.
Two individuals started the PEP fund, Suni Kartha and Biz Lindsay-Ryan; one is a prior board member and another is an active board member. In addition, two future board members (Hailpern and Watkins) were in attendance for the meeting above. This leads to the following inquiries;
Is it appropriate for an elected board member (a relatively powerful position locally) to lobby individual PTAs?
Is it appropriate for a board member to partake in this kind of activity at all? To what degree is it in conflict with their board role?
Why wasn’t the District purchasing modems (or gift cards) for individual students in need during COVID? The Illinois School Code gives them wide authority to do so and they certainly had the funding to do so.
Given all of this, why isn’t there more transparency with this project? Bylaws? Documentation?
One piece of information I would like is from the period: April 2020 until June 30, 2021.
How much in contributions did the PEP fund bring in?
How much was paid out to students for COVID relief? If the fund had $129k on 6/30, what % of that was emergency COVID funding that was held onto?
Was any money spent on consultants, staff, software, or other services?
Did any board members or District employees current or past bill this fund for any services? The latter question is of public interest.
From June 30, 2021 to the present, the project has posted some financial statements. The numbers do not appear to be great, outflows surpass inflows, overall fundraising is down and the ECF has reported -18% in net assets since the first year alone.
Has this project achieved its goals? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
I live in the Lincoln School zone.