Teachers in cash-strapped Brooklyn Center school district use direct withdrawal to fund activities account

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 14, 2013 - 1:36 PM

Faced with budget deficits, Brooklyn Center teachers tap into their own paychecks to help pay for classroom supplies and field trips. They’ve created a nonprofit.

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.

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