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Sustaining Budgets During Tough Times

March 2002

Mountain Brook, Alabama -- One small school district outside of Birmingham, Alabama, has found funding for technology, professional development, and library enhancements through the support of the Mountain Brook City Schools Foundation. Mountain Brook Schools includes 4 elementary schools, 1 junior high and 1 senior high.

Securing Future Funding
Saving for a sluggish economy is one strategy to cushion the volatility of state and local funding for school districts. In 1995, Mountain Brook Schools (www.mtnbrook.k12.al.us/) created a 501 (c)3 foundation in order to accept donations from parents, community members, corporations, and other potential donors. Due to state budget cuts, the district had to choose between programs or find another source of funding. In just seven years, the foundation raised an endowment fund and contributed more than $1.2 million to school programs.

Seeding Success
According to a presentation by State Superintendent of Schools Ed Richardson to Alabama State Board of Education (see www.mtnbrook.k12.al.us/FundingAlabamaSchools.pps), Alabama collects the lowest per capita taxes in the country and has one of the lowest tax efforts (the opportunity to collect more taxes is there when compared to income and tax rates of peer states). This shortage directly affects educational programs.

The Alabama Power Foundation created seed grants to enable many districts to start foundations to alleviate that gap. The foundations use different approaches to raise money and distribute the funds. Some work with their community and others target national foundations or corporations for support. The Mountain Brook Foundation works with the superintendent to prioritize projects and allocate funds. Other districts allow teachers to apply directly to the foundation for support of specific activities.

A Capital Campaign
With their first investment, the Mountain Brook City Schools Foundation created a plan for soliciting support from the community, and developed measures for tracking their success. Using a capital campaign strategy, they approached the biggest donors first to raise half their goal and then reached out to a wider audience.

"We answered all of the negative questions in our own minds before we went public," said Carmine Jordan, Executive Director of the Mountain Brook Foundation. "We had good reasons for funding particular programs and we wanted to share that with the community. We trained everyone to respond to a wide range of questions from people we approached before they went out."

A Reliable Source
In 1995-96, the Foundation provided $67,000 to fund technology purchases and $33,000 for professional development. Each year, the school district provides the Foundation's Program and Needs Committee with a prioritized list of programs they believe are worthy of funding and evidence to support the need. As of January 2002, they had contributed $129,520 to library enhancements, $708,600 to technology, and $381,280 to professional development programs.

The school district did a study and found that books in the non-fiction department of the school libraries were too far out of date," said Jordan. "They set a goal to raise the average copyright date. As a result, we've purchased over 4500 library books to benefit everyone and improved the average copyright date from 1979 to 1992."

Evidence of Change
The district also has improved the ratio of networked computers to students to 1:4, sustained a computer replacement schedule, and introduced video capability as well as technology to address special needs. Parent attitudes toward the integration of technology to meet their children's needs has steadily increased from 70% who agreed in a 1995 survey to 83% in 1998, and 86% in 2001. Surveys of teachers and students also show improved attitudes and experience with technology.

The Foundation leverages successful programs to sustain them and broaden their reach. The success of a state-funded reading specialist at one elementary school was presented to the committee as evidence for the support of a second specialist at another school. To improve student writing and keyboard skills, they purchased Alpha Smart keyboards, a low-cost way to offer more students more access to learn the basic skills for technology use. Mountain Brook Schools was one of three systems chosen for the National Award for Model Professional Development in 2000.

Engage the Community
According to Jordan, the Foundation not only enables the district to fund much-needed programs, it also engages the community. They receive donations from parents, grandparents, alumni and citizens. When alumni hold their reunions, they raise money for the school and enjoy the competition with other classes.

"Education is a high priority in our community," she says. "Most people think that taxes and state government ought to pay for it, we had to convince people that it was a good idea. We have a history of being an excellent school district and we've enabled our district to continue that excellence."