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Viking Foundation Ramps Up Fundraising Effort

More than $1 million raised to date, hopes to raise $3 million by the end of the year

In a time when the future of public education is in peril due to reductions in tax revenue combined with rising state-mandated costs, volunteers in the North Shore School District community have come up with a way to try to prevent the fall of public education as we know it, in the form of a public-private partnership.

The Viking Foundation is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to assist the district with gaining capital funds, established in response to the reduction in state and federal aid received by the schools. The board of directors consists of volunteers who live in the community; the Record Pilot sat down with several members of the board of directors of the Viking Foundation, including Phil Como, Lori Berglin, Amy Shamroth, Lisa Castiglioni and Charles Parisi, as well as North Shore Schools Superintendent Dr. Ed Melnick and Roy P. Wheeler of ParkGate Fundraising, LLC.

“Seeing storm clouds on the horizon, our school board got proactive,” Como says. “They determined that at some point in the not too distant future, making the numbers work would be possibly problematic, in terms of delivering a budget that protects staff, protects programs and protects the continuing evolution of the school system, which since its formation in the late ‘50s, has been notable for its excellence.”

Como said that the school board decided to look at the possibility of private fundraising over and above the tax levy for the purpose of maintaining programs, and initially funding the capital reserve. ParkGate Fundraising was retained to look at the feasibility of focus groups, to see how people in the district would feel about a public-private partnership. They spoke to taxpayers of the school community about their willingness to donate funds and conducted interviews with residents to see what, if any, funds could be raised privately.

“Coming back to the school board, they thought, initially, $3 million would be doable,” said Como. “And, they believed it would be a requirement of an outside agency to do this fundraising. That’s where the Viking Foundation comes in.”

In its third inception, as Como calls it, with the current board of directors, the Viking Foundation has been active for a little more than a year and has currently received more than $1 million in pledges. They decided to conduct the campaign in phases.

“Initially we resolved to launch a major donor gift phase. Both the school board and the Viking Foundation board also put their skin in the game, and all donated, made pledges, in varying amounts of money,” says Como.  “The school board is 100 percent in, our board is 100 percent in. We have been very successful in reaching out to people for the purpose of joining our effort.”

“When you think about it, it’s really the same model that’s used in hospitals and universities,” says Amy Shamroth. “Most things cannot survive; the state education system at this point is broken. While the district has gotten out ahead of that with the Legislative Action Committee, and been extremely proactive with trying to work with Albany, we don’t have the luxury of waiting for Albany to come around. So we’re taking responsibility for our own kids, our own district and our community. It’s such a great community, I know that motivates myself and I think a lot of other people here too. We want to keep the community intact.”

Several of the major gift donors have joined a campaign executive committee whose role is to act as agents of the foundation’s effort in continuing to move forward. Como said they reached a point where they considered launching into the public phase by reaching out to parents and alumni.

“We intend to reach out to as many people as we can, as quickly as we can, to overcome the challenge of reaching critical mass financially. Our agenda right now is to modernize track and field, technology and the arts, and as we continue to evolve as a foundation, we will continue to work with the school district, and the school board, to get marching orders.”

“We have no political agenda. This is emotion-based and we are all in this together,” stresses Como. “I’m in this because I have grandchildren, I love them and I want this district to continue in the excellent fashion that it has evolved.”

Como says they are aware that not everyone agrees with their plan, and they are also aware that not everyone in the district is able to donate money. “We hear dark stories all the time; we choose not to focus on the dark stories, we choose to focus on what this school district has become through the traditional ways of taxing its residents and providing competent, professional excellence to prepare our kids for what’s going to happen when they are 18 years of age and leave North Shore.”

Lori Berglin adds, “One of the nice things about our board is that we have members with children in every grade level, to those that have no kids left, or grandchildren; we’re very broad-based, we’re able to think in all places and come together.”

Earlier this year, the North Shore teacher’s union, administration and board of education came to an agreement on the contract, which Melnick credits the Viking Foundation for helping to settle. He says, making the faculty aware of the fact there are, people out there willing to step in and raise money to keep things where they are made them question what they were going to do for their share. Melnick said the teachers union has already written a check out to the Viking Foundation

“About $2.7 million in savings were achieved, everybody had something to give, but they were giving it to the kids. That’s what makes it historic, that’s what makes it notable, that’s what gives us hope moving forward,” says Como. “The rub is, there’s always next year, and the year after that. We are pushing to get to the $3 million. We have to defeat the dark stories, and move forward.”

Dr. Melnick clarifies that, although they get some state and federal aid, the only way school districts can legally raise revenue is through taxes. With the tax levy cap law, the state has limited the district’s ability to raise revenue, but at the same time has done nothing to stem the costs.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time that a not-for-profit educational foundation has really engaged in this kind of capital campaign and major fundraising,” says Melnick. “It’s really setting a new model for the state. Ultimately, it serves to stabilize the community, because once the schools start going, and the middle class pulls out, people won’t want to buy houses.”

“The other really wonderful part of this whole effort is, a lot of the major gift donors are people who have young children in the schools and who really value public education, and who, rather than giving private school tuition, they would rather give that money to the foundation to maintain the quality,” Melnick continues. “And what’s really neat is that, for each donation made, it’s not child specific. Every dollar that’s given benefits every child in the district.”

Shamroth says, “So far we have had a tremendous response. We have been doing it one person at a time, meeting with people independently at this point, and we’ve had a very positive response.”

To date, the board members say they have approached 80 people for donations and so far, 60 have agreed, some are on the fence and only two have declined.

Como says they are now ready to get the message out and get creative with their efforts. While they have had a three-quarter positive response, they have not yet reached critical mass.

“That’s our challenge,” he says, noting that in districts like Manhasset and Cold Spring Harbor, for example, a few people donated money to help the schools stay afloat. “But here we’re asking a lot of people to write some checks, in varying degrees of amounts, and to sustain that effort going forward for years.” He adds, “We are all guilty of the same crime – we love our kids, and that’s where we’ve decided to put our focus initially.”

Melnick says he predicts that in the next few years, more districts will simply focus their curriculum on test taking and scores. He says the North Shore School District is very committed to maintaining more of a well-rounded approach to education.

“I don’t want to be forced fiscally into the position of saying, the state says we have to give these tests so that’s going to become the education of the district. So in a way, this is really also fighting back to say, there’s more to education than just what the state tells you have to do,” says Melnick.

Shamroth agrees, adding, “It is also very fair in the sense that, every one knows what their taxes are, they have been capped, and for those who can afford to give more, they do. But everyone benefits the same.”

Wheeler says he has been very pleased with the district and their efforts, calling this a “ground-breaking” public private partnership that is “amazing” and says he predicts this trend will continue, not just in public education in almost all public institutions and throughout many sectors.

“It’s a labor of love,” he says of the Viking Foundation’s progress over the past year. “They have not said, this is going to be something that we do once, pat ourselves on the back and walk away; this is going to be a sustainable effort, something that grows and becomes part of the cloth and fabric of this community.”

The goal is to raise $3 million by end of 2012, money that will go toward the completion of the track and field, the Arts Center and new technology, such as iPads for more grade levels as well a recording studio. Melnick explains that the Viking Foundation is more interested in the “brick and mortar” and infrastructure projects, not funding salaries and benefits. He says the technology donation will enable the district to make sure that their technology infrastructure remains on the “cutting edge” to purchase devices without having to draw from their own budget, leaving more funds available to go toward salaries and benefits.

“It really is changing a culture, in the sense that, traditionally, people have paid taxes and it’s covered the bill and that’s what they’ve come to expect,” says Melnick. He says, over time, the mindset of the community could change as they come to understand what it will take to maintain the quality of the public schools.

Como says, “This is an emotion-based effort to ensure that the ones that don’t get left out are our kids. We just want the kids to keep growing, we want them to have the chance to be ready to face the world when they leave public school. That’s not a negotiable goal, that’s going to happen.”