Pencil Pushers: How School Budget Cuts Have Turned Students (and Parents) Into Fundraisers

Having a child enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District means I’m not just a parent, I’m a salesperson.

When I sent my eldest son, Olinga, off to his first day of prekindergarten in 2005, I imagined I’d spend the next 14 years reviewing his homework, helping with science fair projects, and celebrating stellar report cards.
I did not picture myself begging my friends, family members, colleagues, and perfect strangers to buy wrapping paper, poinsettias, magazines, scented candles, scented pencils, cheesecake, cookies, Christmas trees, and every kind of chocolate bar—crispy, crunchy, nut filled, plain, semisweet.
After seven long years on the school fundraising stroll, I’ve made my peace with it: Having a child enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District means I’m not just a parent, I’m a salesperson.
Technically, the kids are the ones who are supposed to do the selling—and schools do their best to amp them up about all the great prizes they’ll earn if they sell more than anybody else. But no kid has the network needed to sell a significant amount of anything. That means it’s up to the parents to pimp out products and close the deal.
“Would you like to buy a chocolate bar and support public education?” I ask friends, coworkers, other parents. In weight-conscious Los Angeles, it’s not an easy sell. And what happens to all that unsold chocolate sitting around my house? “It’s not that hard to talk you into letting us eat it,” says my other son, Toussaint, a sassy 8-year-old.
School fundraisers are nothing new. I remember going door-to-door with chocolate bars when I was in sixth grade—I sold so many that I won a pair of AM//FM radio headphones. When I worked as a teacher in Compton, in the early 2000s, I led a school-wide recycling drive, and the cash from our cans funded an Earth Day field trip to Dockweiler State Beach to pick up cigarette butts and bottle caps littering the sand. Budgets were tight back then, but fundraisers were still for the extras.
A decade later, schools are still running trip fundraisers. Olinga, now 11, has a class trip to Washington, D.C., coming up. It’s going to cost more than $55,000 to send the group of fifth-graders to Arlington National Cemetery, the White House, and the Smithsonian. I’m willing to hustle to get them there, and Olinga’s eager to help out. He tells me he’s going to be “stylin’ on the catwalk” during an upcoming fashion show fundraiser.
The problem is, at the same time we’re trying to fund the trip to Washington, we’re also raising money to buy basics—white-board markers, crayons, paper, photocopiers, and ink. Even essential staff positions are on the chopping block. Last year, thanks to California’s economic woes and despite being an award-winning math, science, and technology-focused public elementary, my son’s school was going to lose its technology coordinator and math coach. Our principal and Parent Teacher Organization rallied the kids and parents for a “911 Emergency Funding Campaign”—a monthlong push to raise at least $50,000 to help save those jobs. We managed to exceed our goal and save the staff positions.
The cuts keep coming, though, forcing schools to straight-up ask parents for money. At the start of the school year, the principal and Parent Teacher Organization sent home a brochure: “In order to continue our high level of success and continue building upon our Culture of Excellence,” it said, our school “needs the financial support of her families.” It was accompanied by a pledge form asking families to donate $25, $100, $250, $950, $2,500, $5,000. Although the brochure made clear that “every contribution, no matter the amount,” was important, the $950 amount was highlighted in blue.
A majority of students at my sons’ school qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Not many families have an extra $950 sitting around, so we have the option of divvying up the amount over the course of the school year—just like tuition payments to a private school.
After school on the Tuesday after the MLK holiday, my third-grader Toussaint pulls another brochure for the pledge drive and a See’s candy order form out of his backpack.
“These are for you,” he tells me as he put the papers in my hands before bounding into the kitchen to root around for a predinner snack.
“Do you know why we have to do all this fundraising?” I ask.
“Because our schools are broke,” he casually replies between sips from a juice box.
Fundraising for education is all Toussaint knows. Since he started school four years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District budget has been cut by about $2 billion. At a recent meeting to discuss the hundreds of millions of dollars more projected to be slashed for the 2012-13 school year, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy said he believes “at this point, that the rights of youth are completely imperiled, if not outright violated” by the cuts.
Toussaint doesn’t know that his rights are being violated. He’s pretty rational about being asked to fundraise. “It’s not like the school can ask the staff to sell the chocolate,” he says. “The teachers have jobs already, so really kids and parents are the only choice.”
I have a job, I want to tell him, and last time I checked, it wasn’t to sell stuff to make up for LAUSD’s budget woes. Instead, I reply that I’ll have to find a time for him to come to my office to hawk chocolate. “Can’t you just do it?” he asks, putting his arms around my waist and batting his eyelashes. “I get nervous when I have to ask people to buy stuff.”
“Maybe I get nervous, too,” I say. “Maybe I don’t want to ask people to buy chocolate for the school.”
“Well, you have to,” he replies. “I’m only a kid and I’m not supposed to talk to strangers. You don’t want me talking to strangers and getting snatched, do you?”
The See’s order form hasn’t been passed around the office, but it’s only a matter of time before I send out an email about it with a subject line like, “Want to help support your neighborhood public school? Buy some chocolate!” My coworkers already know that if they do their shopping at specific malls and turn in their receipts at the concierge desk, 5 percent of what they spend will be donated to my son’s school. I also give shameless speeches at staff meetings, detailing the draconian cuts that have put public schools in such dire straits. “The state of California has cut $38 million from LAUSD's transportation budget,” I tell them. “How are kids going to get to school without buses?”
Of course, the hard sell is when my sons go desk to desk. Olinga and Toussaint have wandered every office I’ve worked in, selling everything from whole cheesecakes to Smencils—pencils that smell like rancid root beer and stale cotton candy.
I console myself with the belief that my sons are gaining practical, real-world skills by learning sales tactics. Last fall I watched members of the GOOD sales team help Olinga hone his pitches. “You have to give people three reasons to buy your pencils,” he was advised. It must have worked. My colleagues purchased dozens of those horrible-smelling pencils from him—which they will almost certainly never use—at $1 a pop. When I turned in the pencil profits at our school, I felt like a champion.
My husband doesn’t feel the same way. He’ll buy the pastries and coffee peddled by parents at the student holiday performance, but he refuses to sell products of any kind. “You’re being taken advantage of,” he tells me. “You’re being used by politicians and school district fat cats who refuse to give schools the money they need to run.” To say nothing of the companies that profit from the sales. “You’ll spend your time selling $1,000 of some company’s chocolate, and of that, you get to keep what? 10 to 20 percent?” he says. “Bullshit.”
True, the fundraising companies do get a cut, but the profit margins for schools aren’t always that slim. Depending on the number of Smencils the kids sell, a school gets to keep between 45 and 49 percent of the profits. The Chicago-based World’s Best Chocolates says that if a school sells more than 50 cases of chocolate, it gets to keep 50 percent of the proceeds.
That doesn’t seem like such a bad deal, until you consider the fact that public education isn’t supposed to entail profit margins and middlemen. With every dollar in chocolate sales, we’re losing one of the essential components of a civilized democracy: access to a quality, free education.
Julian Meehan

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