Faced with belt-tightening from state and local coffers, Arizona's public schools are relying more and more on parent-teacher groups to pay for items they say they need, but can't afford.
No longer content to simply hold bake sales and stand on the sidelines, these parents are taking the lead in raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for items that can directly impact classroom instruction.
Computers and other classroom technology. Rock-climbing walls. Mandarin Chinese lessons. Playground shade structures.
While at some East Valley schools, primarily those in lower-income neighborhoods, principals struggle to even get PTOs off the ground, parents at other more well-off schools use sharp business acumen to help fund what they say are needed educational tools.
"The money just isn't there. When you look at the way the schools are funded compared to 48 other states in the country, they just don't have the money," said Marjorie Desmond, PTO president at Scottsdale's Cheyenne Traditional School, which raises more than $60,000 annually. "Legislation moves very slowly and the kids grow up very quickly. The parents want to have what's best for their own kids, and that's how they make an impact most quickly, is getting involved at the grass-roots level."
Kiva Elementary School in Scottsdale brings in about $225,000 each year, mostly from annual auctions and carnivals. Several Scottsdale and Ahwatukee Foothills schools have even raised enough to pay for salaries of computer lab assistants. Parents at east Mesa's Las Sendas Elementary School help pay for Chinese lessons and Suzuki violin lessons for students.
The PTO at Kyrene de la Mariposa Elementary School in Tempe recently purchased nine new electronic white boards.
"They're just an incredibly active PTO, very supporting of the school," said principal Marianne Lescher. "It's evolved ... a lot of the moms - and there are some dads - have taken a break from their work and they work at the school. They're well-educated and understand the business models. These are women who were accountants and lawyers, taking some of that knowledge to help the school."
Gilbert's Quartz Hill Elementary School opened this fall and its Parent Teacher Student Organization has already raised $40,000 in less than seven months, said Stacey Gin, PTSO president. Many of the school's families had come from Spectrum Elementary School, and when they learned their kids would now be attending Quartz Hill, they started the process to get formal nonprofit status for the PTSO.
"I'm impressed how quickly they bound together to provide this environment for the kids," Gin said. I hope we can keep up the pace that we're at."
At other schools, primarily those in lower-income neighborhoods, it can be tough to organize a PTO - let alone raise money.
"You just kind of get used to that fact," said Devon Isherwood, principal of Adams Elementary School in west Mesa. "It is what it is. I came here from a California school that had a $100,000 PTO budget. We, at this school, don't have a PTO."
Principals at those schools say many parents work multiple jobs, leaving little time for after-school activities. And they simply don't have extra money to donate to their schools.
Isherwood said Adams copes by focusing on getting tax credit donations.
"There are people in the community that look for schools that have less and consciously and purposefully give their $200 to schools like ours," she said.
While tax credit donations can help, state law requires those funds be used for extracurricular activities.
The law was specifically written that way to make sure there were no problems with the state's constitutional provision for equal and uniform schools, said Rep. Mark Anderson, R-Mesa.
"Extracurriculars are sort of considered above and beyond, but things like teacher salaries are considered part of the mainstream budget and funds are more-or-less equalized for districts," he said.
That way, schools in poor neighborhoods have the same access to money that funds certified staff as those in rich neighborhoods, he said.
Anderson said he is concerned about inequalities raised by both tax credit donations and PTO donations.
"But it's one of those issues that's hard to translate the concern into legislation," he said.
Last year, he tried to sponsor a measure that would divvy up corporate tax credits between poorer schools, which he thought would help create more equality, but the measure failed to go anywhere.
Meanwhile, districts have struggled to find a balance.
"You have to walk a fine line between encouraging people to be involved in our schools and encouraging equity across the district," said Scottsdale governing board president Karen Beckvar.
Scottsdale's current policy doesn't allow parent groups to pay for teachers, although things like teacher or playground aides are OK, Beckvar said.
Chandler Unified School District Superintendent Camille Casteel said she believes PTO disparities are, in general, offset by community donations and federal funds given to schools with a high percentage of low-income students.
"We really try to pay close attention to it, so we're diverting resources when we have them to those schools that really need them," she said.
For example, many of Chandler's lower-income schools received technology upgrades before their more affluent counterparts, she said.
Principal Katie Root at Scottsdale's Laguna Elementary School has been on both sides of the issue. She feels blessed now to have a parent group that raises enough to purchase computers, academic materials and seven school aides. But she's also been involved at schools in low-income areas - including Yavapai Elementary School, which has the highest percentage of low-income students in the Scottsdale district.
Even when bank accounts were smaller, parents were very generous with what they had, she said.
"Everyone wants to see students succeed no matter who they are or where they are," Root said. "I know whether (or not) you're in a school that raises a lot of money, their (parent group) is an integral part of helping students."
Tribune writer Hayley Ringle contributed to this report.