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Alumni, local pride fuel school foundation
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The South St. Paul school district has received financial support from contributors to the district's educational foundation since 1986. (Photo courtesy of South St. Paul School District)
Minnesota school districts are keeping close tabs on their graduates, and not just for high school reunions. Many local school district foundations are building sophisticated alumni databases as a way to bring in extra money and mobilize support for public schools. One of the state's oldest and most successful foundations relies almost exclusively on alumni to fund its annual grants and scholarships.

South St. Paul, Minn. — The way Bernie St. Peter remembers it, public schools were facing the same kind of financial challenges in 1984 as they are today. The former South St. Paul school board member worked with then-superintendent David Metzen in an effort to rally community support for the school district and raise additional revenue.

It was a unique approach 20 years ago, asking taxpayers to also open up their checkbooks to support public schools. The South St. Paul Educational Foundation has since served as a model for similar organizations throughout the state. But St. Peter says the early reactions were mixed.

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Image Bernie St. Peter

"It was from one end of the spectrum to the other," St. Peter said. "One person would say, 'What do you think you're doing?" And the other end of that was people supported us."

St. Peter says South St. Paul has an advantage over many school districts, because the boundaries of the district and the city are the same. He says that results in strong community and school pride. St. Peter says the foundation was built on alumni support.

"We made a commitment we weren't going to go after businesses in South St. Paul," St. Peter said. "First of all, there were very little. The major employers had shut down, and the others were being hit for kids hockey, softball, soccer. We were not going to get into that. So, we were after new money, new sources of money."

The foundation's mission is to raise funds for projects and activities that go beyond the normal classroom experience. Donations have paid for field trips, guest speakers, reading programs, books and the school district's Web site. The foundation also helped launch the district's International Baccalaureate program.

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Image Susan O'Brien

Executive Director Susan O' Brien says the South St. Paul Educational Foundation supports innovation.

"We've filled in the gap when there has not been funding, and made things happen," O'Brien said. "It gives staff a chance to try something."

O'Brien says the foundation has paid out more than $3.2 million over the years, and maintains a $2 million endowment. The foundation also awards dozens of higher education scholarships each year to graduating seniors. A total of $159,000 was awarded last spring. O'Brien says the individual scholarships range from $500 to $12,000.

"They really are all over the board," O'Brien said. "Some are based on financial need, some are not. It's basically up to the donor to set the criteria, as long as it's fair and equitable."

Dale Schenian graduated from South St. Paul High School in 1959, and has become a successful business owner. Schenian has been supporting the foundation since its inception, funding three $1,000 scholarships annually. Schenian says he wishes more people would do the same.

I think the whole quality is higher than it would be without the foundation.
- Bernie St. Peter

"I feel a sense of loyalty to the school district and also to the city," Schenian said. "So, what ever we can do to help either or, we try to do that."

Betty Eldridge didn't graduate from South St. Paul, but she taught in the district for more than 25 years. Eldridge is now retired and lives in Arizona, and donates a few hundred dollars annually. Eldridge says she supports the foundation because it makes a big impact in many classrooms.

"If people have a really good idea for a creative program, as a rule it got funded," Eldridge said. "If there was money there it got funded. So, it's a great thing for teachers."

The pool of potential donors grows each spring when another senior class graduates. The foundation carefully updates its list and mails requests for contributions twice a year.

Bernie St. Peter says the work of the foundation is paying off. South St. Paul schools are attracting more new students every year through open enrollment. He says those students see a district that can provide some extra opportunities.

"Students here know if they work at it, and they apply for scholarships, their chances are pretty good they're going to get a scholarship no matter what their interest is," St. Peter said. "I think the whole quality is higher than it would be without the foundation."

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