How the Piedmont Education Foundation fills funding gap in local schools

Heather Frank

PEF office staff. Left to right: Sara Valkonen, Advancement Officer - Heather Meil, Communications Officer - Heather Frank, Executive Director - Lisa Peters, Operations Officer - Susan McLaughlin, Programs Officer - Betty Winnacker, Bookkeeper

It’s no secret that California public schools consistently rank near the bottom in national per-pupil spending. It’s also no secret that Piedmont schools are among the top-rated in the state. So how does the Piedmont Unified School District manage to keep its schools strong? One of the oldest education foundations in the Bay Area, the Piedmont Education Foundation (PEF), works tirelessly to extend its reach and influence in the community in an effort to fill the funding gap left by the state and keep local schools top-notch. “PEF really is the fundraising organization for the District even though we are a separate entity and a non-profit,” said Eileen Kwei, chair of the PEF board. “Our mission is to provide sustained financial support to Piedmont schools through fundraising and community engagement.”

According to the PEF website, when it was founded in 1975, PEF focused largely on raising money for enrichment items such as a Teletype receiver and landscaping at the new Middle School. After the passage of Prop. 13 in the late 70s, it became clear to leaders in the school community that more fundraising would be necessary to maintain the quality of Piedmont schools, ushering in an increasingly more sophisticated fundraising operation. (Read more about the history of PEF here.

Until 2015, individual school sites raised their own money to benefit their schools via the Associated Parent Clubs of Piedmont (APCP). Around four years ago APCP and PEF merged to streamline administrative efforts and have a board of directors oversee the big picture of district fundraising. Today the PEF office manages the logistics of all annual fundraising, from the Giving Campaign (the largest fundraiser), Spring Fling, to SCRIP and provides administrative support to the roughly 13 different school parent clubs and support groups that still operate in the district.  

“The community supports about 35 percent of the district’s budget,” said PEF executive director Heather Frank. “All of the things that make this district exceptional come from the community.”  That figure includes parcel taxes, of which Piedmont has one of the highest in the state. Frank is the only full-time employee in the Foundation’s office. There are 22 volunteer members on the board of directors, four part-time employees and one contract employee. There can also be hundreds of volunteers throughout PEF’s campaigns and programs.  “My job overall is to raise money for the schools,” said Frank. “I do that by supporting volunteers, brainstorming ideas, planning campaigns and executing the campaigns and working with my board and my team to make sure that they all get carried out in the best possible way.”

Before PEF, she was the director of development at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (JCCSF). Frank learned about the opening for the PEF executive director position from a colleague (and Piedmonter) she worked with at the JCCSF.  

PEF’s Board of Directors helps guide Foundation grants and engage the community

Kwei’s first role with PEF was co-chairing Spring Fling in 2016. The following two years, she chaired the Giving Campaign. She was then invited to serve on the PEF Board and become the chair at the start of the 2018-19 school year.  

There are currently 22 PEF board members and 11 standing committees on PEF: the executive committee (chair, vice chair, secretary and treasurer of the board), grants, investments, finance, debt, audit, governance, nonprofit partners, programs, partners in education and school site. “We have a $7 million endowment and we use an external firm to invest our funds and the investment committee provides oversight for that,” said Frank.

In addition to Kwei, the current PEF Board includes Cortney Allen, Sarah Davison DeVries, Allison Elvekrog, Charlotte Ero, Angel Fierro, Nicki Gilbert, Cathy Glazier, Holly Hanke*, Mary Ireland*, Dana Lung, Linda Smith Munyan, John Orta, Sarah Puckett, Mary Lou Righellis, Eileen Ruby, Abby Scott, Rick Smith, Tom Snyder, Samantha Spielman, Rebecca Thornborrow, and Linda Song Wendel.

PEF members can serve a total of six consecutive years terms in the form of three two-year terms. “Most of our board members stay on for six years,” said Frank. “They enjoy having that longevity.”

Throughout the year there are quarterly meetings with a committee of community members, individuals representing parent clubs and support groups, superintendent Randy Booker and assistant superintendent Cheryl Wozniak. “We discuss what specifically the needs of the district are and how we can allocate all the funds in a fair and reasonable way that will serve the district the most,” said Frank.

Giving Campaign impact

At the Aug. 13 School Board meeting, PEF presented PUSD a check for $3 million raised during the 2018 Giving Campaign. “Most of the dollars of that $3 million raised for the 2019-20 school year went towards the teachers, to maintain small class sizes and ensure there are low student-to-teacher ratios,” said Kwei. “I get very passionate and emotional talking about this because it directly benefits my [two] boys.”  

According to the 2018-19 Donor Impact Report, the total funds raised by PEF in the 2018-19 FY was $3.6 million. The report states that 54 percent of donations go to PUSD teachers, 33.7 percent goes to instructional support and 12.3 percent goes to supplies and services.

This year, the Giving Campaign started on Aug. 27, which is a month earlier than prior campaign start dates. “We’re running a longer campaign this year to see if we can capitalize on the excitement of back-to-school,” said Frank. “And it came in hand with the parcel tax Measure G and H campaign.”

This year’s Giving Campaign has so far raised $1.47 million with an end goal of $2.7 million.  “We ask people to consider the Giving Campaign first and foremost when they’re planning their annual giving,” said Frank. 

Going into her third year as executive director, Frank has observed less pushback from the greater Piedmont community during fundraising campaigns, but notes that parents new to town are more likely to wonder why they are being asked to give. “They’re paying a lot of property taxes and they’ve just shelled out everything to buy a house in Piedmont and don’t realize that they will be asked to give and they will be asked to tax themselves.”

About 60 to 65 percent of the community does not have children in schools; however, Frank sees continuing support from many of them. The community still consists of seniors who once were Piedmont students or had children who graduated from the school district.

Once winter break has arrived and the Giving Campaign ends, PEF’s main priority will be the annual, volunteer-run Spring Fling. The event raises money specifically for the tri-schools (Beach Elementary, Havens Elementary and Wildwood Elementary). “It’s really up to the [Spring Fling] committee to determine how it will be spent,” said Frank.

When it comes to how much PEF donates to PUSD every year, Frank stated that “with all of the funds that PEF raises throughout the year, we take that amount and we subtract our expenses,” said Frank. “The number that’s left over is what we grant to PUSD.” PEF’s annual publication, the Patron, is available on the PEF website for the public and sent to 2,500 households. The Patron publishes the “Donor Impact Report” showing financials, community and corporate donor lists, sponsors, partners and the PEF roster.

Randy Booker, PUSD Superintendent since 2015, is unequivocal in his appreciation. “I am incredibly grateful for the true partnership and collaboration between PEF and the District,” he said. “With close to 40 percent of the District’s total budget coming from both the parcel tax and contributions made by PEF and parent organizations, PEF’s relentless support and leadership within our community has been remarkable. They’re why we can provide additional elective programs, counseling, libraries, art instruction, and professional development.”

PEF’s mission is not without challenges

“We are always battling misinformation,” said Frank of the need to placate the rumor mill, one reason why PEF takes their communications seriously. “We work to address it as quickly as possible. The other challenge is donor fatigue and volunteer fatigue. You are getting constantly asked for as a community member here to volunteer and contribute.”

As in other school districts across the state, PEF plays a role in working at a grassroots level to raise funds for an underfunded school district which has recently lost teachers because the pay has not kept pace with the cost of living. “I truly believe everyone this community is here because they value public education,” said Kwei. “Hopefully we have done a good enough job to educate the broader community [about] the fact that public education is not free.” 

(*Disclosure: PEF Board members Hanke and Ireland are also founders and editors of the Piedmont Exedra.)

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