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Foundations provide icing and some cake

Randi Weiner – The Journal News

Teacher Art Brown, left, runs the robotics and engineering program at Nyack Middle School Sept. 2, 2008. Dan Juechter, right, is the president of the newly formed Nyack Foundation for Educational Excellence. The foundation just gave $40,000 to expand the robotics program on the elementary level. ( Angela Gaul / The Journal News )

Teacher Art Brown, left, runs the robotics and engineering program at Nyack Middle School Sept. 2, 2008. Dan Juechter, right, is the president of the newly formed Nyack Foundation for Educational Excellence. The foundation just gave $40,000 to expand the robotics program on the elementary level. ( Angela Gaul / The Journal News )

It wasn’t that the school budget didn’t pay for the basics that caused parents in the Ramapo Central School District to decide to start a foundation, Marci Linke said.

It was that schools ought to offer more than the bare necessities – and that taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to fund them.

That was the beginning of Resource for Expanding Academics and Community Horizons, these days simply called the REACH Foundation. It was 1998, and Linke was one of the founding members.

“I really wanted to bring more funding to the schools via grants and corporate funding, and the only way to do it was with a foundation,” said Linke, also a member of the Ramapo Central Board of Education. “We sat around my kitchen table for a few years talking about it. Our concern was to bring the community into our schools and to bring innovative programs to the schools.”

School foundations are a growing part of parental involvement in schools, especially in New York, where public school budgets must get voter approval each year. In a continuing tight economic atmosphere, paying for more than minimal state requirements becomes an increasingly hard sell.

Rockland schools have come relatively late to the foundation movement; of the five operating foundations attached to local districts, four are less than 2 years old; North Rockland is considering starting one next year.

Foundations are more common than unusual among the Westchester and Putnam school districts, with more than half of them leaning on foundations for grants, new playgrounds, new programs and other supports, educators estimated.

The Hastings Education Foundation is typical of a long-term foundation. The foundation, created in 1996, now contributes as much as $75,000 in grants a year to the Hastings-on-Hudson teachers and schools. Most recently, it paid for wireless microphones used in the high school play. It’s paid for new equipment in the exercise room and to test out possible curriculum.

“There are a lot of things you want to do … but I think the challenge to us, in an era of diminishing resources, you have to see what’s realistic” to put in the school budget, said Schools Superintendent Robert Shaps.

Dobbs Ferry schools’ foundation has contributed $4.5 million to the district since its inception in 1994, said Schools Superintendent Debra Kaplan. It’s paid for pianos, a science research lab, the middle school math lab, professional development and a television studio.

“What a foundation does for us is to – not supplement, but add additional things we would not be able to do within our budget,” she said. “It’s amazing the kinds of things they support. They tremendously enrich the program.”

REACH, for example, offers grants of $10,000 to $15,000 to teachers, as well as student scholarships.

“After 10 years, people just know about REACH,” Linke said. “We hold dances, casino nights, wine tastings, and we just completed our fun run with over 11,000 people from the school and community. We built the amphitheater at Suffern High School and landscaped the high school and middle school. We’re landscaping each of the elementary schools and providing budgets to maintain the landscaping. In all, we’ve given out $100,000 in grants, which makes such an impact.”

Joseph Fitzgerald is on the other end of the foundation timeline. The state just recently accepted the paperwork to formally organize the Nanuet Schools Educational Foundation, and its first event was held in June to celebrate the district’s centennial and anniversaries of Highview and Miller schools.

“I’m an entrepreneur with several business interests, and (Nanuet Schools Superintendent) Mark McNeill pulled this foundation idea out. It’s been around for a few years but never got really started – and one of the things I’m good at … is starting things.

“I said I’d get this thing organized and set up a plan,” he said. “My object is to go off and chase grants for things the schools can’t go ask the people for.”

New this past school year, too, is the Foundation to Inspire Excellence in Nyack Schools. Dan Juechter is president of the foundation board and chairman of the executive committee.

“A group of us started talking about this in 2006, to figure out ways to help the school district enhance the educational experiences of our children,” Juechter said. “But instead of hitting parents in their pockets every week like the PTA or taxes, we wanted to work out a process to go through corporate philanthropy.”

It took more than a year of research and discussions with administrators and community members before the foundation got moving, he said.

Because Nyack has introduced robotics in the middle and elementary schools and wanted to expand the program to all grades, the foundation decided to help pay for the expansion immediately, instead of having it put in place over several years as money became available in the budget.

A casino night in February garnered more than $40,000, and a check for that amount was handed over to the district in the spring – 100 percent of the request for this past year’s funding.

“We felt we needed to get something on the ground quickly,” Juechter said. “Now we’re developing other projects to get our name out into the public, to get people talking about it.”

The Clarkstown Educational Foundation initially had difficulty starting up as well, parent Peter Kash said. When Schools Superintendent Margaret Keller-Cogan came to the district two years ago, she helped jump-start a new effort, he said.

“She called me … and said we need a foundation and pro-active citizenry,” he said. “I have four kids in the community. I recognize the competition our kids will have with the job market. I thought we could help the students at a level before they get to college. Maybe the foundation could have a huge impact, micro and macro.”

Clarkstown’s foundation celebrated its first anniversary in July.

The board members have one focus, he said: What can best help the district’s children. That’s why they have raised money for electronic whiteboards for classrooms, and are behind the push to get foreign language instruction started in elementary school.

The foundation wants to give grants to teachers doing innovative work and has set up an alumni database for solicitation efforts. As of this month, the district’s teachers can have money taken out of their paychecks to support the foundation.

He eventually wants to help fund a districtwide no-book/no-paper program. The object is to replace heavy textbooks that injure young spines with hand-held computer devices that download the information students need.

He said that if people pulled together through the foundation, they could accomplish wonders.

“Everyone can give something and get stimulated by a teacher, by a class, by a program, by a principal and come together,” he said.

Debbie Gatti, a North Rockland school board member, has been meeting with representatives of some of the county’s school foundations to see if such a program would be viable in her district.

She wants to start small, with an academic hall of fame in the vein of a sports hall of fame. It’s not something a cash-strapped district would put in its budget, and the project would require more time and money than a single person could contribute, she said.

“My hope is that eventually we can have maybe enough money to do some of the extra things that, because of financial constraints, you just can’t do,” she said. “I know in other places people use foundations to do extras like landscaping. We have some real immediate needs because of budget constrictions. As times get better, if we can do the niceties, that’s where it could eventually go.”

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