As Brooklyn Center teachers watched eight of the last nine levy referendums go down in flames and the district’s financial struggles deepen, it would be easy to feel defeated.
Field trips, additional classroom supplies and enrichment projects — forget about it.
But retired Brooklyn Center High School Principal George Larson convinced them to do what the referendums did not.
Give a little more.
Nearly 125 teachers and staff members in this small, 2,100-student district have signed up for a direct withdrawal from their paychecks, with the money deposited into an entity called the Centaur Foundation. It’s a registered nonprofit that teachers can tap to pay for some of that enrichment squeezed out of the budget.
Most participating teachers and staff including custodians, cooks and secretaries give a nominal amount, $2.86 per paycheck — for District 286 — Some give $5 or $10 out of each paycheck.
“That’s not much money, but it adds up when you have 125 people doing it,” said Larson, comparing the amount to one burger-and-fries fast food meal a month.
Those little contributions, combined with a healthy amount of community donations, have added up to a pot that ebbs and flows between $15,000 and $25,000. The money is used to pay for field trips, class projects and college scholarships for students.
“I am also proud to say that every donation penny ever collected by the Foundation has been used for the students,” Larson said.
The Brooklyn Center School District has struggled financially for years. Voters passed a levy in 2011 after rejecting eight in a row. The levy that passed maintained funding. The district, which has a $23 million annual operating fund, has $2.5 million in statutory operating debt. That means the district’s reserves do not meet statutory requirements. The Centaur Foundation is paying for enrichment that kids wouldn’t get otherwise.
“It provides for those unique, special opportunities for kids the district cannot,” said district Superintendent Keith Lester. “It makes learning more meaningful and it’s just plain fun for kids.”
This spring, 30 high school arts and biology students went to the Science Museum of Minnesota to study and sketch the Body World exhibit with a Centaur Foundation grant. Middle school students used it to complete National History Day projects, and the fund will help pay for Field Day festivities at the elementary school.
Other students attended the Concordia Language Camps in Stillwater. Six $500 scholarships are awarded each year to college-bound seniors from the Centaur Foundation.
Language Arts Teacher Joe Wilson’s eighth-graders all complete projects for the National History Day Contest. They pick a topic, research it and make a presentation board. A $500 Centaur Foundation grant pays for the tri-fold boards, construction paper, glue and other craft supplies. It also pays for entry fees in the regional and state contests.
It might not seem like a big deal, but for Brooklyn Center, this project wouldn’t happen without the grant. Many students could not afford to bring in the supplies. More than 80 percent of the district’s students fall below the poverty level, Lester did.
“It’s huge for these students to get this experience you’d get elsewhere without batting an eye. It takes a little bit more for us,” Wilson said.
Wilson contributes $2.86 a paycheck. It’s about $57 a year. He said there’s such strong support for the program among teachers and staff, he didn’t think twice about signing on.
“George Larson is very well respected and very well spoken. He is an incredibly passionate person who is retired and dedicated to use this. He won me over,” Wilson said.
The foundation was originally set up in the late 1980s to raise money to buy a baby grand piano. With that goal reached in 2002, it evolved into a loose program to raise money for school projects.
Larson, who started as a teacher in the district in 1973, retired as principal in 2004 and became involved in the foundation, registered it as a nonprofit and came up with the direct deposit idea as well as community fundraising. In grant applications, teachers need to show that a grant will enrich and enhance students academically.
The foundation awarded 22 grants this school year totaling $11,000 and an additional $3,000 in scholarships.
“It’s a bit of a cliché to say no teacher goes into it for the money. It’s a small expense for the staff to pay. We know the money goes directly to the benefit of the students, which you can’t always say with red tape and hoops to jump through with other grants,” Wilson said.
A $500 Centaur grant is paying for field marking paint, jump ropes and award ribbons for Earle Brown Elementary’s annual Field Days event. Each grade had a track and field day.
Painting the field for the event makes it seem more official for the kids, said elementary phy ed teacher Anne Foote.
“Just having a foundation that is willing to listen and support your ideas outside the budget is great. Having this opportunity is fantastic,” Foote said. “I was more than willing to give a little bit of my paycheck.”
Donations to the Centaur Foundation can be mailed to Brooklyn Center High School, 6500 Humboldt Av. N, Brooklyn Center, MN 55430