School hadn't even started in Lisa Churchill Jolly's Blaine neighborhood, but her doorbell rang more than a dozen times with students selling raffle tickets, Gold C coupon books, Subway restaurant cards, magazines, even egg rolls. And those were just the late-summer drives.
"In the fall, the hockey and basketball players will be out, then the elementary schoolkids do a fundraiser around the holidays, and in the spring the lacrosse players join in," said Churchill Jolly, who lives in the Anoka-Hennepin School District.
As young salespeople race to be the first on the block to make their pitch, parents, students and administrators are wondering if the "would you like to buy?" appeals are getting out of hand. Few question that the educational appeals for textbooks or band instruments are legitimate, but many parents are overwhelmed with fundraising, saying that it's one more thing to do in an already busy schedule.
Tricia Kasen of Mounds View wants a break from the fundraising grind. At her son's middle-school orientation several years ago he was given two packets on the first day of school -- one with his schedule and one for selling cookies.
"Why can't the school fund these things?" she asked.
They used to, but not anymore. Parents and grandparents can remember when schools paid for nearly everything except an occasional field trip, but today's school budgets are stretched paper-thin, and fundraisers help to cover basic supplies such as books and copiers.
"Now as much as 20 percent of some schools' operating budgets comes from fundraising," said Tom Dooher, president of the Education Minnesota teachers union in St. Paul, who predicts that the need for additional funds will only get worse. "It's a significant amount of money," he said.
One donation, then done?
Instead of a flurry of parents and kids selling candy, gift wrap, Christmas wreaths, frozen braid rolls and even fertilizer, Terrie Hull Moen of Burnsville wishes that schools could collect a dollar amount at the beginning of the year. "Share the money among the causes and be done with it," she said.
It's an idea that is starting to catch on. Many schools and parent-teacher organizations, aware of potential donor and volunteer fatigue, are looking for alternatives.
The national Parent Teacher Association (PTA), which has always been synonymous with raising money for schools, has shifted its fundraising away from candy and gift wrap to more creative means.
"Some PTAs are suggesting a $25 or $50 'guiltless' membership instead of $7 for a traditional membership" as an option to stay out of the fundraising fray, said Lashon Beamon, director of communications for the PTA in Alexandria, Va.
"We'd rather have parents spending time in the classroom, where involvement can mean higher test scores, than have them hosting a bake sale."
Not that Beamon wants to put a stop to a tradition, but family engagement pushes the needle higher, she said.
Some schools have taken it a step further and banned student fundraising altogether. "We don't allow our students to sell," said Brian Bloomfield, principal at Nova Classical Academy, a St. Paul charter school. "We eliminated anything that distracts from learning."
Instead, parents are encouraged to contribute $10 or $20 to a "give every month" program. "I haven't heard any complaints about the program," he said.
But not everyone agrees that writing checks is a permanent solution. "It brings in revenue for a couple of years, but by the third year the numbers start to drop," said Rick Anderson, president of the Chip Shoppe, a St. Cloud for-profit company that supplies schools with gift wrap, frozen foods and magazines for fundraising.
But writing a check directly to the school can be more cost-effective for the school or program. Anderson said that the Chip Shoppe takes a 60 percent cut of the fundraiser's proceeds, leaving the schools with 40 percent. On average, he said, that leaves Minnesota elementary and middle schools using the program a net profit of about $15,000 for each annual fundraiser.
Sell it all or buy it out
Avoiding sales altogether takes the pressure off many parents who resent being told that their student must sell 15 boxes of cookies or the family is on the hook for the money. Some parents can't afford the "buyout," and even fewer want to be stuck with boxes of junk food.
Although the fundraising appeals might vanish if parents write checks instead of buying snacks, magazines or coupon books, some worry that paying for so many needs ad hoc is a dangerous trend.
Administrators forced to cut budgets and parents desperate to provide for their kids might mean that more supplies, programs and even staff will have to be supported by fundraising, not taxes.
Last year parent groups in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district chipped in $143,000 for classroom staff. In Vadnais Heights parents and civic groups raised $34,000 to help hire an extra fourth-grade teacher.
Parents and boosters writing checks may work well in affluent districts, but Dooher worries that it is creating inequities. "It's a slippery slope when it's a public school, and some parents working three jobs can't afford to supplement those extras," he said.
Ads on lockers?
Some districts such as Robbinsdale, Mahtomedi, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie have gone beyond the PTA to form foundations to raise money for special projects and scholarships, said Dooher. Foundations typically support non-core student achievement programs or smaller grants to classrooms such as Arts for Academic Achievement in Minneapolis. The St. Paul Public School Foundation, however, supports training of tutors.
Other districts, such as West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan, have considered selling advertisements on lockers as a fundraising substitute. After a recent passionate, philosophical discussion about commercialization in education, no action was taken by the school board.
"We're not moving forward with it yet, but it's still on the table," said Robin Rainford, chairwoman of the school board. "We're looking at every source of revenue."
Scott Douglas, principal at Lakeville South High School, suggested another way that some districts can reduce fundraising -- pass upcoming tax levy referendums. "Parents pay out more supporting fundraising efforts than they would if a levy referendum passed," he said.
Voters can expect a lot of referendums this fall, said Lonnie Hartley, an Education Minnesota spokesman. Out of 342 school districts, 133 are going to the polls to ask for more money, he said, the most in a decade.
If voters don't approve the levies, doorbells might be ringing more often. But it could be a tough sell.
"Please, no more magazine subscriptions," said Churchill Jolly. "Just let me write a check."