Hot fundraising produces hot water for Sacramento’s Crocker/Riverside school

Actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. right, signs a lunch box for Zoe Reese, 10, at Crocker/Riverside Elementary School during an event to celebrate Earth Day in 2008. The school in an affluent city neighborhood is seeing tension between two parent fundraising groups this year.
Actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. right, signs a lunch box for Zoe Reese, 10, at Crocker/Riverside Elementary School during an event to celebrate Earth Day in 2008. The school in an affluent city neighborhood is seeing tension between two parent fundraising groups this year.

Parents at Crocker/Riverside Elementary School in Sacramento’s Land Park neighborhood are seeing the downside of raising large amounts of money to enhance their children’s education.

While many Sacramento City Unified schools struggle to raise funds in one parent-based organization, Crocker/Riverside now has two groups that combined generate more than $100,000 annually. This academic year, the campus has seen increasing tension between the school’s parent-teacher association and the fledgling Land Park Schools Foundation, which formed last year as an alternative to the traditional fundraising arm.

The disharmony went public nearly two weeks ago when Principal Daniel McCord and PTA leaders were stymied in their effort to replace the PTA with a new parent-teacher organization. They were accused of being secretive, and one parent affiliated with the Land Park Schools Foundation filed a formal request seeking copies of McCord’s communications and PTA records.

It’s an uncommon state for the parents of Crocker/Riverside, where the emphasis has long been on campus advocacy and cordiality. In recent years, the well-heeled Land Park neighborhood redoubled its fundraising efforts as state funding declined and Capitol leaders steered more money to campuses with underprivileged students.

“Our school is very close-knit,” former PTA President Anne Hawley said. “You know how families are sometimes. You have little squabbles and you kiss and make up. At the end of the day, I think everyone wants what’s best for the kids.”

A few blocks north of William Land Park in a neighborhood where homes routinely sell for more than half a million dollars, Crocker/Riverside has the smallest share of low-income elementary school students in the city district. Less than 15 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, compared with 73 percent for the entire Sacramento City Unified School District, according to state data.

Since 2012-13, Crocker PTA members have exceeded $100,000 annually in their fundraising for the 650-student campus. At Crocker, the money has helped in multiple ways, such as buying school supplies, reimbursing teachers, helping fund the library and holding science fairs.

So what’s the problem?

Ask that question in Land Park and the answer stems from a years-old discussion. PTA members a few years back looked for ways to shore up their liability insurance for successful off-campus fundraisers where alcohol was served.

The statewide PTA collects a share of the locally raised PTA dollars and provides insurance. But that insurance doesn’t cover alcohol service.

One proposed solution has been to establish a parent-teacher organization and disband the PTA. That would mean no money going to the statewide PTA and greater ability to hold events with alcohol.

The conversation about a parent-teacher organization had been off and on when some parents chose to create a PTA Booster Club. That approach would protect the PTA and the school, parent Michael B. Sullivan wrote in a 2013 email to parents. But the PTA, he wrote that same year, pushed back with “attitudes ranging from friendly but dismissive to suspicious and surly.”

PTA leaders, in their own emailed responses, said at the time they wanted to resolve the alcohol issue without creating a second organization.

By February 2014, Sullivan and several others created the nonprofit Land Park Schools Foundation, a group with a stated mission to raise money for schools in affluent sections of Land Park but also campuses serving low-income housing projects near Broadway.

In its first year, the group raised about $14,000, all for Crocker/Riverside, according to Konrad von Schoech, president of the Land Park Schools Foundation.

Soon after McCord became Crocker principal in 2013, discussions about creating an independent parent-teacher organization resumed, he said in a letter two weeks ago to parents. Creating a new group and transitioning from the old PTA would reduce costs, resolve insurance issues and ease paperwork demands, he wrote.

“I think we can do better for ourselves,” he told parents. He said the executive committee of the PTA had approved a plan for the Crocker/Riverside Parent Teacher Organization, and the issue would go to the general PTA membership on Jan. 20.

But the PTA meeting took a different tack.

McCord apologized to those in attendance for pushing the idea, saying he should have first done more outreach. He apologized, he said, to “anybody (who) felt like this was a secretive process or felt left out.”

Von Schoech, the Land Park Schools Foundation president, said, “I haven’t heard anybody talk against the idea of PTO. It’s against the process.”

The same day, Sullivan, treasurer of the Land Park Schools Foundation, wrote a Public Records Act request to the school district seeking “files, memorandums, letters, notes” tied to the PTA and the proposed PTO for the last 17 months. He also sought all emails exchanged between the principal and a half-dozen PTA members for that period. In a telephone interview Friday, Sullivan declined to talk about his motivation for seeking the documents.

“The only context I’m going to give you is … it’s a dead issue,” Sullivan said. “I told (the district) it’s on hold.”

The conflict over the issue, he added, “is something that occurred within our school. It’s not something that should be in the public interest.”

Parents aligned with the long-standing PTA have privately countered that the Land Park Schools Foundation has its own problems with secrecy. They say the foundation is not subject to the same fiscal oversight required of the PTA.

“There are some in the community with concerns about lack of transparency with Land Park Schools fundraising,” said Hawley, the former Crocker PTA president.

She believes that some fallout comes from the growth in fundraising capabilities.

“I think we are seeing some growing pains right now as to how the two organizations co-exist,” she said.

The idea of also creating a parent-teacher organization is not dead.

“We’ve done great as a PTA,” said the current president, Cristi Harris.

“There are a lot of great support systems that the PTA has in place,” she said. “But there’s also, in looking at a PTO, some flexibilities that would be available to a school like ours. We have a very independent kind of working unit right now. So I think we can manage the transition to a PTO.”

At a Thursday meeting of Crocker’s School Site Council, a separate body that monitors how donations are spent, both the PTA and Land Park Schools Foundation are expected to give an overview of their fundraising efforts and spending.

Lea Darrah, president of the state PTA’s Third District, which covers eight Northern California counties including Sacramento, said there is a process, including notifications, that must be followed before disbanding the local PTA.

“It looks like a little of the cart had gone before the horse,” she said.

No matter what happens at Crocker, she said, whether they “switch to a new group or stay with PTA, there are strong feelings on both sides.”

Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee. Bee staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this report.