Thursday, January 24, 2002

Cape starts foundation to support innovation in schools

Published in the Current

Cape Elizabeth has set a $1 million fund-raising goal for a new education foundation which would give grants to local teachers and schools for innovative teaching projects.

In the planning stages for a year, the tax exempt Cape Elizabeth Education Foundation could begin fund-raising as early as this fall.

The foundation would use the interest from the money it raises to make the grants. The program is based on the success of the Rye (N.H.) Education Foundation.

Rye is a similar town to Cape, in its proximity to the coast and general affluence. And with a smaller population, Rye was able to raise $1 million in a single year to kick off its foundation, giving Cape organizers confidence in their success.

Superintendent Tom Forcella, who is an adviser to the foundation, said the plan is to lay the groundwork now, as the economy recovers, and have meetings in various neighborhoods to prepare for the capital campaign kickoff in the fall.

“The purpose of the foundation is to support education,” said CEEF president Andy Geoghegan.

He was careful to note, however, “the primary obligation to support schools is obviously through the town and the state.”

But the district already is getting $7 million less in state money than it did in 1987, and with the burden of making up the difference falling on local property taxpayers, money is hard to come by.

“We don’t have the kind of commercial development in town,” Geoghegan said, to bring a lot of money in without raising property taxes.

The operational budget, Forcella said, is the responsibility of the taxpayers. But new projects and additions to school programs are hard to fund.

Geoghegan said the foundation is intended to support “a project relating to educational innovation and excellence.”

Falmouth and Cumberland, Forcella said, have similar programs where they raise several thousand dollars each year and give it all away. The Cape plan, like the Rye foundation, is to raise a much larger sum up front and have interest to give away each year without major fundraising drives.

The Rye Education Foundation has been around since 1995, and has granted over $30,000 to the town’s schools for various projects.

With the interest from $1 million, “you’re talking significant impact on what can be done,” said Mark Forsyth, president of the Rye Education Foundation.

Forsyth said the REF has two grant application deadlines each year, and decides grants based, in part, on maximizing the number of students who will be affected by the project.

Some of the projects in Rye have included $784 for the purchase of a digital camera for use at the junior high school newspaper; $1,000 for materials to build a reusable planetarium at the elementary school; $2,500 for a program in which elementary school students “create an individualized U.S. history book unique to their own experiences and historical research”; and $200 for elementary school students to make handmade paper for story books.

And at least one idea has developed in Cape already: A teacher at the middle school wanted to do a unit on Near Eastern culture and religion following Sept. 11, but there were no funds to pay for books or other materials.

With the regular budget method, teachers have to plan 12 to 24 months in advance. But the foundation plans to offer a simple application form for a teacher or administrator to fill out, and give an answer—and the money—in 30 days.

“Sometimes the traditional budget process is confining,” Geoghegan said.

Innovation and experimenting with new methods are hard for school boards to fund, especially when money is already tight, he said. “We hope to do some of those extras. It’s limited only by the imagination of the teachers and students.”

And what about some people’s fears that the school board will stop funding some programs and suggest the foundation pay for them instead?

“We should be so lucky,” Geoghegan said. If there’s enough foundation money to really make a dent in the school budget, it would be a positive thing, not a problem.

“We are independent but we need to be closely coordinated with the school board,” Geoghegan said.

This was echoed in Rye, where Forsyth said, “we’re not tied into the town or the schools, although we support the schools.”

The fund-raising may begin this fall, Geoghegan said, but any formal announcement would wait until a strategic plan and project timeline are complete, which he expects by April.

The foundation already has met with a couple of fund-raising consultants about how to get to $1 million, and Geoghegan said he anticipated hiring a professional to run the fund-raising effort.

He expects the money could be raised in three to six months. Rye’s experience may lend some credence to his projection: The REF originally set its goal at $500,000, but upon reaching that goal, an anonymous donor pledged to match additional funds raised, up to $250,000. The REF did it, bringing their total to $1 million.

“I think it will really benefit the school district,” Forcella said.

The foundation wants to get the community involved. Forcella talked about tapping the schools’ alumni, asking them for money. And Geoghegan said it is an opportunity for people to help the schools beyond just paying their property taxes. “Those who want to (help) and can will have a convenient vehicle for doing so.”