School Leaders Confront Teachers' Classroom Crowdfunding

As more teachers use crowdfunding websites to supply their students with everything from wet wipes to computers, school district leaders are responding with policies, policy proposals or no policies at all.

Manchester school administrators recently received requests from teachers seeking permission to set up GoFundMe and DonorsChoose pages to solicit donations for classroom-related purchases, district finance Director Karen Clancy said at a recent school board committee meeting. The increasingly popular sites allow individuals to cast wide nets for causes, projects and material needs.

Teachers in the cash-strapped Hartford school system are enthusiastic users of DonorsChoose, which now hosts fundraising pleas for at least 80 local school projects. City educators seek basics, such as facial tissues, paint supplies and candy rewards for good behavior; and pricier items, including Chromebook computers, books popular with preteens and costumes for kindergarten plays.

In 2015, a third-grade teacher at Hartford’s Burns Latino Studies Academy was celebrated by DonorsChoose for raising about $24,000 in new equipment, furniture and supplies for her classroom, giving her students access to technology — from tablet computers to a $2,500 3-D printer — that would otherwise have been out of reach. At a city neighborhood school such as Burns, where the budget is tight and low-income families are unable to boost a PTO’s finances, teachers have routinely turned to the internet to supplement resources.

Clancy said she surveyed 11 school systems on how they handle online solicitations and found that seven do not allow the practice; two allow it with superintendent/school board approval; one allows the solicitations without district involvement; and one is working on the issue. She also spoke with the Manchester school district’s attorney, who cited equity concerns, Clancy said. The issue has been referred to the school board’s policy committee.

Teachers who care for their students and want to improve their classrooms should not be tangled in red tape, school Superintendent Matt Geary said. They are to be applauded, Geary said, but at the same time, consistency and equity are needed.

“We don’t want stuff ending up in one third-grade classroom that should be in all third-grade classrooms,” he said.

Also, “given the budget situation,” Geary said, referring to continuing uncertainty about state aid to schools, “the idea that outside donors could make up the gap is a good idea. We just want to make sure there’s some reasonable order.”

West Hartford schools have a longtime policy that teachers cannot raise funds for classroom supplies because the district sets budgets for those items, Assistant Superintendent Andrew Morrow said. Occasionally, teachers or administrators may set up GoFundMe accounts if a student’s family is in need, Morrow said. Also, teachers have made recommendations to PTOs to raise money for certain items, he said.

The Windsor Board of Education last year approved a crowdfunding policy that requires superintendent approval.

“To date, I have only approved requests for raising funds on behalf of a student or family in need,” Superintendent Craig Cooke said. “The Windsor staff gives generously to many community agencies and Windsor families through donation requests.”

New Britain schools allow teachers to use DonorsChoose, district spokesman Matthew Cannata said, but teachers are discouraged from using GoFundMe, in part because donations cannot be tracked as reliably.

“We have a general protocol we have provided to schools to help guide the funding requests of our faculty in terms of alignment to technology systems and general program direction,” East Hartford school Superintendent Nathan Quesnel said. “Our staff are very active on crowdfunding and have brought many innovative resources into the district as a result.”

“We don't have a policy specific to teachers raising funds for their own classrooms,” Plainville Superintendent Maureen Brummett said. “However, it is our practice to leave that type of fundraising to the PTOs. Teachers who are looking to fund special projects are encouraged to write grants.”

Manchester school board Chairman Christopher Pattacini said teachers always have reached into their own pockets to buy classroom supplies, and no one has sought to stem their generosity. But with the wide reach of crowdfunding sites, “individual decisions by teachers could create significant inequity in schools,” Pattacini said.

Teachers in no way intend that effect, he said, but nevertheless, school district leaders must confront the new reality. It’s possible that crowdfunding efforts could be coordinated through the local education association, Pattacini said. Manchester school board member Neal Leon said PTOs could serve to focus online solicitations.

“The administration of (the crowd funding efforts) is what we’re concerned about,” Leon said.

“We’ve got to navigate this very carefully,” Pattacini said.

Courant staff writers Steven Goode, Vanessa de la Torre, William Leukhardt, Mikaela Porter and Don Stacom contributed to this story.

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