WILKES-BARRE — With uncertainty looming over Pennsylvania’s public school funding, Wilkes-Barre Area School District is turning to philanthropy to fill in the cracks.
Wilkes-Barre Area last week joined the ranks of more than 200 districts around the state to have its own educational foundation, a body of volunteer fundraisers working independently of the district, but for the district’s well being.
Four other Luzerne County school districts benefit from similar organizations: Pittston Area, Dallas, Hazleton Area and Crestwood.
Founder and president of the Wilkes-Barre Area Educational Improvement Foundation Frank Pasquini said volunteers are going to start with a writing lab program and a math/science program that focuses on technology through the use of digital tablets for students.
“We raised about $12,000 in 2013. In the best Wyoming Valley tradition, we’re getting this off the ground,” Pasquini said.
Senate Bill 76, a bill that would reform how school districts gain revenue, is now before the state Senate finance committee. In summary, the bill would abolish the school property tax and replace the revenue with an increase in sales and income taxes.
Additionally, Gov. Tom Corbett has been criticized for about $1.1 billion in education cuts 2011-12, which he claims were part of a federal stimulus that expired.
Pasquini has documents dated from 2004 when he first began planning the foundation. Last February the foundation began soliciting funds. At a mixer Thursday night, board members introduced themselves to the community and laid out their objectives.
Pasquini cites $4 million to $5 million corporate donations made to other foundations in the state.
“You could imagine what it could do to supplement the budget long-term,” Pasquini said. “School real estate taxes are under the microscope. (Legislators) are playing volleyball with this. I felt ‘ladies and gentleman we gotta jump on a moving train here.’”
The foundation works independently of the district’s faculty, school directors and administration, Pasquini said, but some school employees sit on the foundation’s board.
The foundation board officers are Frank Pasquini, Robert Makaravage, James Post and Dina Goeckel. Board members are Joseph Borland, Dennis Driscoll, Brian Fischer, Suanne Moses, Leonard Przywara, Steven Barrouk, Danielle Simko and Steven Simko.
Other non-profit organizations have been around for some time in Luzerne County.
Partners in Education is in Hazleton, Weatherly and Crestwood school districts and coordinates extra activities in the districts. Most recently it coordinated the annual Career Awareness Day with guest speakers making presentations at the three districts’ schools and a jobs expo for Hazleton Area students in November.
Partners in Education has two employees and was founded in 2000.
The Pittston Area Educational Improvement Organization provides funding for enhancement curriculum that is not included in the regular academia.
Dallas School District has the Dallas Foundation for Excellence in Education. Like the others, it raises money for and arranges supplemental curriculum in the form of an iPad lab, anti-bullying campaigns.
The foundation also paid for the district’s new lighted sign on the edge of campus.
There are more than 7,000 of these academic-support foundations around the country, said Bob New, founder and president of the Pennsylvania Consortium of Education Foundations.
Of the 500 Pennsylvania school districts, 226 have foundations acting independently to subsidize public education.
New said the public’s perception on how education should be funded has to change.
“I tell my foundation, people perceive school as when they went there, and that could be the ’60s or ’70s,” New said. “There’s been a paradigm shift,” New said.
Non-profits likely will not fund an entire district’s operations, at least not any time soon. But New said the foundation system helps maintain quality in the classroom that may be lost when school systems get bogged down with administrative expenses.
“Some of the basic functions that they have to pay take away from what they have to do in the classroom,” New said.
Using the Educational Improvement Tax Credit program (EITC), the board can solicit donations from corporations that meet state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) standards, enticing them with tax-deductible contributions up to a 75 percent write-off of total contribution and not to exceed $750,000.
But there’s one caveat to this tax credit: DCED favors technology improvements and math and science endeavors and usually only approves programs wired that way, Pasquini said.
The board now will begin to seek unrestricted donations for other programs from smaller donors, and that money can be used to fill what teachers recommend.
A survey soon will make its rounds to classrooms around the district, Pasquini said. The board will seek teachers’ input to decide what is most needed.
Wilkes-Barre Area’s 2013-14 budget is about $101 million.
School board member Dino Galella said donated funds could bolster technology programs, pay for teacher training and other equipment students use in the classroom.
Galella said he is encouraged by the foundation and hopes to see it grow, ultimately to stifle tax growth.
“What we’re looking for is taking some of the burden off the taxpayers,” Galella said.