• TL Zempel

Fundraising: the new taxation

Updated: Apr 23, 2019

As I begin today's post, allow me to share a bit of a conversation I had with my brother yesterday. Sometimes, he and I like to discuss politics, which is really fun because we are both of the same political ilk: fairly conservative. So discussing politics with him is a bit like preaching to the choir. This time, however, we hit a snag.

When I shared with him that the amount of money Special Olympics gets from the U.S. government in grants is roughly the same amount they spend on fundraising, he wasn't concerned. His point was that it's a coincidence, and the Special Olympics is going to spend that money, anyway. My point is that regardless of whether it's a coincidence, why does any organization, particularly one as well-known as Special Olympics, need to spend $15 million to raise more money? He doesn't see the issue with spending money of that magnitude because we're talking about a global organization that has a lot of layers to it that the average person cannot comprehend. That just sounds like a situation ripe for corruption to me. Not to him. I'm still agog at that.

But onto today's diatribe:

I discuss the murkiness of Federal funding a bit in my book (Finishing School) when I share how the F & R system is ripe for abuse. F & R is teacher-speak for the Federal school meal program (Free & Reduced-priced Meals) that either gives away food to kids at school or offers a lower price for the food. This program is designed, of course, for those living at or below the poverty level. In that sense, it's a good social safety net for our poorest citizens. Solid nutrition is the backbone of raising and educating strong children. No qualm with that.

What I do have a qualm with is how F & R is managed and how easy it is to abuse the system.

I learned this when I took an F & R form to the school office to turn it in for a parent who had asked me to. When I handed the form to the secretary, I got an earful about the process of signing up for F & R. I learned that parents do not have to prove their income and that the school district merely puts a rubber stamp on all F & R forms that are submitted. By "all", I guessed that the secretary meant 98%. It is beyond believe-ability that at least some people did not make it into the program, although as I think about it now, I'm not sure what criteria would be used to determine that, since no one has to prove their income. All they have to do is sign the form, submit it to the school, wait for the district liaison officer to complete the entry into the system, and then cash in on free meals.

Sorry if that sounds unkind. I'm sure there are people who really need this program. I'm also sure there are people who abuse it, once they understand how easy it is to game the system.

Let's back up to the point about the liaison officer for the district. When I asked what that meant, the secretary told me that our district has one lady to process these forms. One lady! For a district with nearly 100,000 students. All she realistically can do is take the form and enter it into a system. This is why no research is done to determine who is actually eligible. I asked why this lady doesn't have a team helping her and was told that it is less expensive for the district to just rubber-stamp all the applicants than it would be to determine who legitimately needs the service. I stood there with my jaw dropping while the secretary nodded grimly at me.

She went on to tell me that this particular mom who had given me her form had also pulled up in the no-parking zone in front of the school in an Escalade to register her child for school. It reminded me that I had also seen the mom dressed in expensive clothing and make-up, and carrying a designer handbag that morning when she had talked to me on the playground. I began to wonder about the legitimacy of the way the school lunch program is administered at that moment.

Here are two other facts about F & R I learned on that day:

  • Once a family achieves F & R status, they not only get free or reduced-price meals, but they also do not have to pay for anything else associated with school: fees for field trips and other things that actually do cost money, and all the supplies that a teacher deems necessary for success in her classroom. You're probably familiar with the back-to-school lists that teachers provide, usually on the school's website. Things like pencils, spiral notebooks, erasers, pens, highlighters, an atlas, loose-leaf notebook paper.... These lists had to be vetted by our principal, and certain items were always removed. I had always wondered why. I found out when the secretary told me that anything put on that list had to be provided free by the school for every F & R family. Who pays for that? Not the Federal government, I can assure you.

  • Secondly, there is a funding and obligation disconnect associated with the F & R program. The lunch program wants families on F & R because they get more Federal funding with each new addition to the program. But they don't have to pay for all the freebies that the school is now obligated to provide. The school also doesn't get help from the district in providing these freebies to families, so what happens now?

What happens is extra taxation of the families who do pay for things through the nifty little extortion racket called fundraising. You know about those fundraisers that are all about selling over-priced items to the parents and friends of those parents. That's nearly passe now, outside of youth clubs and teams. These days, a lot of schools are doing something called a Fun Run. Feel free to explore the link on your own. I'll just give you the gist of it here: A company comes into your school and talks up the event to the students, encouraging them to get pledges from parents and others for how many laps they can walk or run in a half hour. This company then runs the event on the day it happens, using parent volunteers from the school. No goods are sold. Money is pledged and then collected. Prizes are awarded for different levels of money collected. The company walks away with 30% of the take.

My school routinely collected around $30,000 through this enterprise, which took a lot of time and manpower to manage. What we got to keep after expenses is another of those murky financial puddles that schools would probably rather keep secret.

Here's something else to consider when schools operate fundraisers: Actual school staff have to manage the fundraiser. The financial secretary has to deal with the intake of money because that is the only way to ensure an accurate accounting of it. One of the assistant principals has to be the liaison with the company and deal with managing the prizes and running the assemblies to promote the event. Classroom teachers have to collect the money envelopes and keep track of who has turned in funds. Those who did not participate receive "polite" reminders from the office to get on board with the enterprise.

Fundraising is one of the worst evils perpetrated in our school systems. Everyone on staff at my former school hated fundraising season, which began the week after school started and lasted for the next 6 weeks. Just what you want to have to deal with as you're beginning a new year with new students.

Fundraising in schools has become the newest taxation device, and parents I knew were getting extremely weary of it. But the truth is that fundraising is a necessary evil because funding from legitimate taxation does not pay for what people think it pays for. The F & R program is just one example of whitewashing in our public schools. It would be helpful if more people would educate themselves about where funding for schools comes from and what it actually supports, as well as what the F & R Federally-Funded Program actually means.

My biggest point in my column about Special Olympics funding being cut is that people should resist jumping on an emotional bandwagon when they are tasked with making fiscal decisions.

The F & R program falls into the same spectrum: if all you do is think of it as a program to help underprivileged children, you're going to miss the bigger picture. The program is rife with loopholes and can easily be misused by people who figure out how to work the system to their own benefit. I'll finish with these two quite egregious examples:

  • One dad, a successful journalist, applied for F & R based on the fact that he and his common-law wife had never legally married, and she was a stay-at-home mother. He told me, with obvious pride, that he was entitled to benefits like this provided by his own tax money, and that he would continue to reap every benefit, including never paying for field trips and getting free lunch for his kid. His 'wife' was able to put her status as 'single parent' on the form and her income as quite negligible. Because they were not legally married, his income did not have to be divulged.

  • A single mom of one son enrolled him after the school year had started. This is the woman I discussed previously in this post. Her son told me that they lived with his mom’s boyfriend and that she was a stay-at-home parent. I later learned during parent conferences with the mom and boyfriend that he worked for Lockheed, an aviation giant with a major hub in our area.

These examples don't even take into account the many students on F & R who also sport expensive mobile phones, nail treatments, and vanity accoutrements such as $200 basketball shoes. I saw plenty of these instances during my last 15 years of teaching.

For those of you who want to label some of us as cold and unfeeling, please keep in mind that, just like everyone else, our attitudes are shaped by our experiences. When you see abuse of a system it is very easy to become cynical.

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