Parent fundraising groups are pumping a lot of money into San Diego Unified schools, but because the district doesn’t track these nonprofits, we haven’t been able to say how much – until now.

Actually, there are too many holes in the groups’ books to know precisely how much money we’re talking about. But after a lot of homework, I can make a pretty good guess.

School foundations, PTA groups and booster clubs – all nonprofit entities that raise money for schools – brought about $6.5 million to San Diego Unified in 2011-2012. More groups reported their income for that year than for 2012-2013, so I looked there.

The number is likely higher than that. The district doesn’t keep a central database for all nonprofits that work alongside schools, so I pulled their IRS filings one by one.

But not every foundation is named after the school it works with, making it hard to pinpoint just how many foundations exist and who they support. A foundation at Barack Obama Elementary, for example, might be named “Kids Love to Learn and Play” (I made that up).

Some groups were delinquent in filing their reports to the IRS. Others have most likely dissolved, but never bothered to file dissolution paperwork.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Now, $6.5 million is pocket change compared with the district’s mammoth $1.1 billion operating budget. But it’s also nothing to scoff at.

There are a few foundations that raise money for clusters, or collections of schools located in the same general area. But the bulk of that money stays in the particular schools whose parents raised it. This means almost 40 percent of the $6.5 million stays in La Jolla.

Let’s put that $6.5 million into context. That same amount could fund:

• One year’s budget at Central Elementary School

• One year’s salary for about 70 teachers (if they made the district average $92,000, with benefits).

• About 12,115 new iPads (with three-year warranties!)


Again, the total $6.5 million raised by the foundations couldn’t buy those things — that money is like a bunch of gift cards that can only be spent on the school it originated from. But it helps to see how much that amount could buy if it could be bundled together and spent on anything.

Parents and foundations argue that certain schools and clusters have to raise money themselves, because they receive less money per pupil and are short-changed in terms of public funding.

I plan to take a closer look at that claim but for now, it’s important to remember that this fundraised money is unrestricted. Schools can use it for additional teachers, supplemental music or math programs or for fun stuff like field trips.

Schools can also have multiple nonprofits working alongside it. Mira Mesa High, for example, raised about $165,000 in private money from a foundation, a PTA group and a music booster.

La Jolla High has a similar set-up. They just seem to be little better at it. In 2011-2012, fundraising groups brought more than $787,000 to the school.

La Jolla High raised the most in 2011-2012, considering all sources, but if you break the schools down by size, La Jolla Elementary brought in the most per student.

That year, La Jolla Elementary had about $950 to spend on each kid – that’s on top of what it got from the state based on its average daily attendance. That’s a lot, especially considering about 90 schools in the district didn’t report any additional revenue at all.


These 15 schools are the highest earners in the district, in terms of what they brought in through fundraisers. Most are located in La Jolla or Scripps Ranch, although San Diego High near downtown knows how to raise a buck, too. They just have more students who have to share it.

    This article relates to: Education, News, School Finances, School Foundations, Share

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario asks questions and writes stories about San Diego schools. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email:

    DeehereSD subscriber

    Is there a limit to these fundraisers and steady solicitations?  If not, there should be.  My son stood in the kitchen insisting I tell him why we would not be able to participate in that month's fundraiser.  He asked me if I realized he wouldn't get extra points for turning in his envelope?  Then I sat down with him and reminded him about our family budget and the many, many hours of time I've devoted to helping his school.  I had to remind my son not to be embarrassed for not turning in his envelope.  There must be a limit set to these fundraisers and steady solicitations.  If Prop 30 supposed to stop this need for incessant fundraising?

    TJ Apple
    TJ Apple subscribermember

    The whole state of education in CA is in such disaray, citizens are already taxed the highest in the nation and lied to over and over again 'how this one new, temporary tax' will fix everything. It is so bad that parents need to reach into their pockets to fund a growing number of programs such as art, music, sports, tutors, etc. I for one will not vote for another bond measure or tax increase until the whole eductation system is reformed, it is time for a manjor do over!

    Friends of Jefferson Elementary
    Friends of Jefferson Elementary

    Sadly, foundations seem to be the only way to fill in the gaps where the district can't provide what the students need. I wish we could fund all the schools equitably through massive school/tax reform; but we have kids who need decent schools right now, so parents are going to look for the most expedient solution. That's why we're starting a foundation for Jefferson Elementary in North Park so that the middle class families in the neighborhood will consider it seriously as an option for their kids rather than commuting all over the city to avoid a school that's within walking distance.

    scoutmom subscriber

    Hello, I have lived in Scripps Ranch since I was 8 years old.  I attended public school there until my parents put me in private school in the 6th grade. The schools in Scripps Ranch weren't always the shining beacon of quality education.  But, the parents here banded together, raised money, donated time and effort, and coordinated many programs to change that and create a quality school grouping that they can be proud of over many years.  Change can happen, but it must be parent supported. 

    I have come back to live and raise my daughter in Scripps Ranch as a single working parent.  I cannot always donate my time to volunteer, so I donate my money when I can afford to. 

    I do not understand why these donations are being painted in a negative or even questionable light.  Shouldn't we celebrate that there are involved parents who care enough to donate their time, money and efforts to making a better school? Most teachers I talk to say that is their number 1 key to success - parent involvement.  

    Why should we be ashamed of being able to assist our own children?  The state has decided to help those who cannot afford to with more Title 1 funding.  So that's basically a message to the rest of us who "can afford to" to kick in and fill the gaps when we don't get Title 1 funding.  Personally, I would never donate to a general school support fund that was spread throughout San Diego, I am already doing this with my tax dollars.

    What is the difference between:

     1. Purchasing a ream of paper to donate to the classroom

      2. Spending an hour of time to help organize a classroom

      3. Donating $10 to the school fund to keep a librarian on site full time?

    Why must the dollars be scrutinized, but not the time and effort?  I wonder if you did a similar comparison amongst San Diego schools regarding number of hours donated in the same manner as dollars have been examined, what would you find?  You would find the exact same result.  That parents in La Jolla and Scripps Ranch donate more hours overall and per student than other areas.  Why?  Parent support.  Just like me, there are many parents out there who donate.  Some can donate time, some can donate money.  All are worthy. 

    Also, why are dollars donated to schools subject to different rules than other types of donations?  For example, museum charity, alumni clubs, hospital charity - or even public communication charity?  They all have deficits for operations, and therefore ask for funding to fill the gaps.  It is an accepted practice.  Note that on the front page of Voice of San Diego web site, there is a big dial showing how much funding they have collected this month, and how much more they have to go.  Why is my $10 questioned if I send it to my daughter's school to be spent on her daily environment, but I can give $10 to Voice of San Diego with encouragement?  It shouldn't be.  

    Final Note:  When parents band together to create something special in their community, the city as a whole does benefit.  All Scripps Ranch schools bus in children from other areas of town.  Our donations help provide for the children in and out of our community.  It creates a place people want to send their children to (proof being in the fact that there is a wait list to get into almost every SR school).  Shouldn't the real news be that teachers, parents, students and supporters have banded together to make a community that is successful? 

    The equation is simple: Parental involvement = success.

    Richard Bagnell
    Richard Bagnell subscriber

    @scoutmom  This is not about the money.  The donated money is insignificant compared to the District's budget. It is even small compared to the cost of busing. This is not about how the money is spent.  Nobody donates reams of paper, art supplies, used musical equipment, tissue, hand soap, or markers for District smart boards for their child only. 

    ( note to the District; Only the financially illiterate would build libraries without employees hours or expensive smart boards without funds for markers.)

    What this is about is power.  The union and the union elected board cannot stand that parents have any control.  They can't stand parent choice. They can't stand charter schools.  The can't even stand parents who are in their schools daring to support the schools without their directed social engineering and control.  They can't stand that the District and union doesn't get a cut.

    If you start with the proposition that the schools are run for the benefit of adults rather than for the students, their concerns about issues like this are easy to understand.

    Oscar Ramos
    Oscar Ramos subscribermember

    @scoutmom  I certainly don't want anyone to feel bad about wanting to help out their own children. I wish more parents would be involved in their kids’ education. My point is that if our policy and funding system is working well, then you shouldn’t have to donate one additional cent to your local school. You shouldn’t have to pay extra money to ensure that your school has a full-time librarian. You shouldn’t have to donate a ream of paper. They should simply have more than enough paper and a full-time librarian. My point is that letting people provide those essentials to their own schools takes away an incentive to fund the system as a whole, which is meant to ensure equality of opportunity for all San Diego children.

    Title I schools get extra funds, but I don’t think those funds match the school’s educational and support needs. If they did and those schools were swimming in extra money, I would imagine that families from wealthier areas would send their kids to Title I schools south of the 8 in order to benefit from the extra funding. Even though non-Title I schools don’t get those funds, their students also don’t have to deal with the challenges of going to a high-poverty school.

    When you say that you would never donate to a general school support fund, you’re illustrating my concern, which is that in a city like San Diego that is extremely economically segregated, letting our school district develop these informal funding systems lets more prosperous areas of San Diego opt out of the experiences and challenges of being in a public school system.

    I don’t have kids (although I am a charter school teacher), but I would be happy to pay more in taxes to ensure that all schools were adequately staffed (of course, provided that the funding system is transparent and democratic). I don’t think that my willingness to support the district should depend on whether I have a child in it. Otherwise, why should I pay taxes for anything that I don’t directly use? Also, why should I pay taxes to fund your children’s schools if I know that you’ll make up for it through donations? We need to be in this together. 

    -P subscriber

    @scoutmom  My major concern is that the schools are funded so poorly that they need these donations, that teachers have to buy school supplies out of their pockets, that some classrooms don't even have enough desks, etc. I'm also concerned that teachers are underpaid, and that schools have lost most of their support staff & counselors. (The work that those people did still needs to get done. Now it's teachers who are doing it, and, since it is not part of their regular job, they do it much less efficiently, and lose time for lesson prep., grading, etc.) And Richard, just so you know, I am not in anyway affiliated with the school system beyond having a child enrolled. And I'm not in a union.

    VeronicaCorningstone subscriber


    Is it the district questioning donations, or VOSD?

    Would you donate to a fund to support, say, music enrichment, for your cluster, not just your school?  I know the district is too big, but I'm starting to think maybe funds could be distributed across clusters. 

    I don't think anybody is criticizing you for donating to your child's school, but children are supposed to have access to equal educational opportunities.  The huge effects of these foundations is something most people were not aware of.  Why are k-3 class sizes so much smaller in La Jolla than City Heights?  The foundation.  Nobody is even suggesting that it be different, this series is just be explaining how these inequities happen.  And title 1 schools don't have enough paper, either.  And they have to send everything home by paper, because many families don't have internet access.

    SherryS subscriber

    Thanks Mario for reporting on these issues.  Please do report on the per pupil funding for schools that do not receive Title 1 funds.  These schools really are short changed by San Diego Unified.  They don't have enough money for basic needs and have no choice but to rely on donations from parents.  It is particularly difficult for my daughter's elementary school in the Serra Cluster that gets no title 1 money and only a modest amount of money from the school's foundation.

    To rub salt in the wound, San Diego Unified is not even including representatives from these schools in the Advisory Committee that is putting together the Local Control Accountability Plan.  The District Advisory Committee for the LCAP is made up of the District Advisory Committee (DAC) and the District English Learner Advisory Committee (DLAC).  Contrary to what the name implies, DAC is not representative of the District.  DAC is designed for the Compensatory Education Program and only schools who receive EIA or Title 1 funds are voting members of the DAC and receive materials  at their meetings.  So students who attend schools that do not receive Title 1 funds do not have representation on the LCAP advisory committee.  The LCAP will be fundamentally flawed from the outset because it does not have appropriate parent or stakeholder representatives to prioritize where the local control funding should be spent.

    Richard Bagnell
    Richard Bagnell subscriber

    The students at risk are the Title I students that get no Title I funds. These schools receive less money per student.  These schools have Title I students bused by the District without fair and equal funding per student.  The inequality comes from the State and District, not parents. 90+% of the District budget is directed to employee pay and benefits (CalSTR is seriously underfunded)  while student programs get the crumbs. IMO, the next step should be for us to take our crumbs, bats and ball (fund raising) and form Charter Clusters.  

    Oscar Ramos
    Oscar Ramos subscribermember

    I would love to see how voters in precincts where these schools are located have supported past school bond measures that would benefit schools throughout the district. If people are raising money for their own school while still supporting increased funding for the district, I don't really have a problem with these foundations. 

    -P subscriber

    @Oscar Ramos  I'm curious as to the reasons why some of the schools in those districts opted out of the VEEP program.

    VeronicaCorningstone subscriber

    @-P @Oscar Ramos

    Schools opted out of VEEP?  We originally lived where my son would have qualified for busing through the VEEP program, but instead choiced him into a different neighborhood school.  I don't know anyone who has used the VEEP option, even though we lived in a neighborhood that qualified for  it.

    -P subscriber

    @VeronicaCorningstone @-P @Oscar Ramos  Yes. For example Bird Rock Elementary used to have VEEP students from different neighborhoods (my child was one). They no longer do.

    Dennis subscriber

    Cool.....good for them!