There has traditionally been a wall between public K-12 schools and fundraising, but it's starting to crumble.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Benson Polytechnic High School's 2021 rebuild is more than $60 million over budget, according to the latest estimates. But donors may be able to make up some of that gap.Wouldn't it be great if someone came in with a truckload of money to save Portland Public Schools' wildly overbudget 2017 bond projects?

Coming up with $132 million is probably too far of a stretch. That's how much the plan is missing to rebuild three high schools and update a few others. But finding private charity dollars to plug a few serious gaps may not be so far-fetched when one looks at indicators on a national level — and those closer to home.

Private philanthropy is slowly becoming a bigger player in public K-12, much as it has in public higher education. School districts — like Portland Public Schools — are hiring people in-house to coordinate grants and donations. Public universities in Oregon learned in recent years that they can rake in billions of dollars in capital campaigns and now some people are wondering if K-12 can cash in.

Those in K-12 argue over what is an appropriate gift to a public school, but there are no rules barring a philanthropist from — say — building a wing of a high school.

PPS school board Chair Rita Moore acknowledges conflicting feelings about the possibility of large donors coming in to save the day on her district's school construction projects.

Moore was the only board member to publicly speak up about a little-noticed clause in the district's renaming policy passed in April that would allow donors to name "locations within a school or non-school facility" in "exceptional circumstances" following a "significant gift."

"I don't think Portland Public Schools should be selling naming rights just because someone is able and willing to plunk down a bunch of money," Moore told the Tribune. "That being said, several people asked me: 'Would you never do that?' If Oprah Winfrey decided to give us a billion dollars, I'd probably reconsider it."

A new position

COURTESY: PORTLAND PUBLIC SCHOOLS - Portland Public Schools Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships and External Affairs Jonathan Garcia. Jonathan García, PPS' senior director of strategic partnerships and external affairs, was one of Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero's first hires last fall.

The son of undocumented immigrants and a Forbes 30 under 30 awardee, García has a track record of organizing philanthropic donations for educational causes. At San Francisco United School District, where he worked with Guerrero, he says he raised $20 million in private donations.

Portland Public Schools has been supported by the countywide All Hands Raised foundation for years. But PPS is part of a wave of districts feeling the need for in-house moneymakers.

"What you're starting to see is a movement towards developing a strategic partnership function in the district," García said.

At PPS, García has been actively making connections and promoting the district. His team has raised $1.8 million so far, but García hopes the best is yet to come.

"I'm really waiting for the big multimillion, multi-year investments that should be coming down the pipeline," he said.

To pave the way for that, his team is coming up with guidance on how donations should play out. The senior director has noticed discrepancies between how donations are treated from one school to the next and said there has been no district-level strategic planning for donations.

As for capital improvements, García said he is looking at private philanthropy as a way to shore up programmatic functions within a new building — such as auto shop equipment in a new Benson Polytechnic High School, not necessarily a wing itself.

It's still possible, though. In Portland, García has been working on developing his "generosity network," a portfolio of corporations, charities and private donors who can write those big checks. Philanthropy, he notes, is a long game of building relationships — and, in PPS' case, rebuilding trust.

"One thing I was hearing from the business and philanthropic community was: 'Oh, we tried to work with PPS but they wouldn't open the doors,' " García said.

No silver bullets

In January, Benson Tech unexpectedly received a $200,000 donation from Portland General Electric and its retiring CEO Jim Piro, an alumnus.

Benson Tech's proposed $269 million remodel has a huge amount of soft costs — some being expensive technical equipment that individual or corporate donors may be interested in gifting to a likely labor pool.

In fact, Benson Tech and Lincoln high schools — two of four schools being rebuilt with the 2017 bond — have some of the wealthiest alumni in the area.

Lincoln High School Principal Peyton Chapman has noticed. Chapman made a public Facebook post Saturday night pleading with Nike co-founder Phil Knight, his wife and others to support K-12 philanthropy.

"Phil and Penny (K)night and other civic leaders PLEASE invest in K-12 and higher education partnerships that will lift up our state," Chapman wrote.

Knight went to Portland Public Schools, graduating from Cleveland High School.

He and his wife have given away more than $2 billion in large gifts, mostly to higher educational institutions, such as the University of Oregon, Oregon Health & Science University and Stanford University.

They have also given to K-12. About half of the Cleveland High School athletic field was paid for by the Knights, and several other PPS high schools got $2 million worth of funding from Nike to upgrade their fields.

But Julia Brim-Edwards, a PPS school board member who also happens to be an executive at Nike, says she sees public K-12 with a different mission and sources of cash than universities. Brim-Edwards, who is also on the board of trustees at Oregon State University and Pacific University, says universities don't have students from any particular geographic area and don't have the ability to tax properties.

"We welcome any donations and philanthropic giving, but it's not likely to be the silver bullet to close the budget gap (on the 2017 board)," she said.

Capital campaigns are fair game

Claire Hertz, the district's new deputy superintendent of business and operations, also said recently that she didn't know much about García's efforts and that philanthropy will not be a significant part of the plan to address the bond deficit.

"We're always looking for partnerships, but that's not our main focus in addressing our financial plan for our bond program," Hertz said. The plan she laid out to the board in late August counts on voters to approve a bond in 2020 to shore up Benson Tech's 2021 remodel.

But two months ago, Hertz worked at the Beaverton School District, which has been a local innovator in K-12 fundraising. The Beaverton High School Success Fund has raised millions of dollars for its school, where two-fifths of families are low-income.

The funds have gone, in part, to renovations.

At Portland Public Schools, so far at least, grant funding and donations go almost entirely to programming.

Fundraising for construction would constitute a culture shift, but there are no rules against public K-12 schools building with donated funds.

Oregon Department of Education Chief of Staff Cindy Hunt says the only restriction is if a donation runs afoul of Title IX gender equality protections, such as by building a fancy new field for boys-only athletics.

Otherwise, capital campaigns are fair game.

Fundraising for construction has always been part of the private school world. But even public higher education institutes in Oregon have been raking in cash in recent years.

Ever since 2013 legislation dissolving the Oregon University System, newly autonomous public universities in Oregon raised mountains of money in capital campaigns.

Oregon State University scooped up $1 billion faster than it thought possible in 2014.

The University of Oregon is close to its $2 billion goal after a record-breaking $695 million year in 2017.

Could the same happen in public K-12 schools? For her part, Moore, the board chair, says she hopes not.

"The reality is that in Oregon we have chronically underfunded and disinvested at all levels for the last three decades," she said. "When you're facing that kind of situation, it forces public institutions to engage in practices that are not optimal. And I think it's a sorry testament to the priorities of this state that we're selling off things to the highest bidder."

Shasta Kearns Moore
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