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Donations now pay teachers' salaries
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Co-chairwoman Kris Newcomer says the STAR Fund is about raising dollars to maintain class sizes and prevent further cuts in Hopkins schools. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
Public schools have long sought donations to pay for various extras that enhance the educational experience. But in the last few years, non-profit groups in a few Minnesota school districts have begun raising money for teacher salaries and other basic classroom costs.

Hopkins, Minn. — As members of the Hopkins Education Foundation, Kris Newcomer and Julie Woolfrey have raised money for public schools. The foundation pays for supplemental activities and enrichment programs. But the impact of recent budget cuts prompted these concerned mothers to take more drastic action.

They launched a separate campaign to raise money for Hopkins schools called the STAR Fund, Securing Teachers And Resources for a brighter future. Newcomer says the campaign targets other parents.

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Image A STAR Fund gathering

"The STAR Fund is about raising dollars to maintain our class size -- to keep our teachers and our programs at least where they are now, and not take further cuts," Newcomer said. "We're not talking about adding back. We're talking about maintaining what we currently have."

Newcomer and Woolfrey are spreading their message about school finances face-to-face, through a series of house parties. Newcomer recently hosted a gathering at her home in Minnetonka.

"We have to do this together," Newcomer said. "We have to really become politically active."

Hopkins school district officials are projecting a more than $3 million dollar deficit for the next school year because state funding levels aren't keeping up with costs. They're also expecting to lay off teachers. Co-chairwoman Julie Woolfrey says the STAR Fund would have to raise $1.3 million to save all the threatened jobs.

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Image Glad for the support

"Anything we raise will help keep teachers in the classroom and keep class size down," Woolfrey said. "One-point-three is a huge number, but if we can do half of that, if we can do all of it, if we can do more than that, the money will go to make sure that we've got -- right now that number translates into 26 teachers." Some layoffs might be unavoidable, since STAR Fund donations have yet to reach $200,000.

Most school district foundations, including the one in Hopkins, have intentionally stayed away from funding core expenses, like teacher salaries. The Orono Alliance for Education was one of the first to cross that line.

It's a controversial step. Critics claim districts like Orono and Hopkins have greater fundraising potential than other districts. They say that creates an uneven playing field.

Colleen O'Keefe, executive director of the White Bear Lake Area Educational Foundation, says she's worried about equity. She's also concerned about relying on what could be a volatile source of funding.

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Image Sheryl Walker and Mary Hall

"One group might be able to raise $500,000 each year. And as that group moves on and a different group moves in, you've now passed all kinds of pressure on to this new group to continue to fund those teacher salaries," says O'Keefe. "That's really just not a place that I think we belong. I wouldn't want to take that responsibility away from the state, to fund those salaries and those basic education needs."

Hopkins Superintendent Michael Kremer says he's heard the complaints. He says the idea of parents raising money to pay teacher salaries doesn't feel great, but he's proud of them for stepping forward in a time of need. Kremer says the STAR Fund is also sending a message to lawmakers that could benefit all school districts.

"Ultimately, they're going to become the most well-educated parent group in this state," Kremer said. "And (they) will expect in the future that the state fulfill their commitment to adequately provide resources to serve public schools all across the state." Back at Kris Newcomer's house, the pitch has paid off. Mary Hall, a parent of four elementary school children, says she's ready to contribute. She also admits it didn't take much convincing.

"Everyone knows there's not enough money. I mean you turn the news on, that's all we hear about," said Hall. "So, you just need to step up. And there's not enough money to go around, and so we'll do what we can to support it."

STAR Fund organizers say they plan to wrap up their campaign by the end of the month. The Hopkins school board will then begin its final work on trimming the budget for the 2004-2005 school year.

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