Video: To Bridge Funding Gap, Maine Public Schools Look to Private Foundations

Aug 3, 2016

This fall, Maine voters will head to the polls to vote on a new tax that would increase education funding statewide. It’s being proposed as educators and districts across the state continue to wrestle with limited budgets. As they do that, educators are increasingly turning to private money to fund education, and private foundations are now playing a big role in putting money directly in the hands of teachers.

On the Yarmouth waterfront, 7th-grade teacher Morgan Cuthbert and a few of his students plunge their hands into a giant contraption called an upweller. The device, created by the students, looks kind of like a giant foosball table filled with barrels of flowing water. It’s a kind of artificial habitat for hundreds of thousands of baby clams.

“There are gonna be some clams on the inside there,” Cuthbert says, as his students yank out pieces of giant mesh netting covered in tiny black dots — the baby clams.

This project started three years ago, when Cuthbert and his students learned that European green crabs were decimating much of Yarmouth’s clam population. Over three years, they raised money for this upweller, with the goal of reseeding clams and helping to revive the fishery.

There’s an educational goal, too — Cuthbert wants to integrate the work into the school’s science curriculum, so every Yarmouth 7th-grader can learn about biology by growing and harvesting clams.

“One of the neatest things about this kind of project is it’s problem based,” he says. “The kids are driving this stuff. They’re looking at the research. They’re looking at the science.”

Cuthbert says making the project happen required serious money, tens of thousands of dollars, but it didn’t come from the school district. Instead, Cuthbert tapped into several private foundations.

He says stepping outside the public education system to fund this new instruction was unchartered territory for him.

“It’s something you have to do as a teacher once in a while,” Cuthbert says. “It can’t always feel safe. Right?”

(To learn more about the clam project, watch the video below)

As school funding continues to lag in many districts, this kind of private foundation funding is taking on new importance. According to data tallied by the Maine Philanthropy Center, foundation funding for public education in Maine has nearly doubled over the past 10 years (Note: this number doesn’t count all grants, only those recorded by the Philanthropy Center).

“It was born out of necessity. The people in the community saw that there was a need, and the need was filled,” says Matthew Howell, president of the York Education Foundation, created about a decade ago when the town faced a budget crisis.

School programs were cut, leaving a bare-bones core curriculum. Parents were upset. So, in response, they got together with educators to form the new nonprofit.

“To finance projects and curriculum initiatives that the budget just wasn’t funding any longer,” Howell says.

The story was similar in Yarmouth, where school funding dropped sharply in 2010. The community responded with creation of an educational nonprofit — the Yarmouth Education Foundation.

Barbara Edmond, the president of the Maine Philanthropy Center, says these foundations have to walk a tricky line. They want to support schools, but they don’t want their contributions to result in less school money from the state or town.

“So philanthropists are a little leery of having philanthropic dollars replace public dollars. They want it to be over and above public dollars. So they have to kind of be very careful about where they place it,” she says.

That means foundation money is often designated for specific projects that aren’t in the core curriculum, like music; new technology; or new learning styles, like the clam project in Yarmouth.

Howell says for him, it’s like being a venture capitalist.

“We look at ideas and say, ‘Is this going to be a viable idea? Is it going to help this teacher? Is it going to engage students in a unique, new way?’” he says. “Is it something long term that the district can get behind and say ‘Hey, this is so effective, so good, that we can take this to the town and fund this?’“

Howell says this strategy worked when the York Education Foundation paid for a few interactive SMART boards for select teachers. Before long, every teacher wanted one, and administrators found public funds to pay for the technology districtwide. But Howell points out that towns like York and Yarmouth have a big advantage.

“We have a benefit of being in a fairly affluent community. Unfortunately economics plays a big role. Unfortunately, a lot of communities, the median income, even if everyone in town donated, it still wouldn’t make a significant dent in making a difference. And fortunately in this town, we do have some people with means and can donate and make a difference,” he says.

That leaves poorer districts, like A.O.S. 96 in Machias, with few options to make up for limited public funding.

“It’s very difficult to expand programming, there’s no question about that, in our area of the state. Probably a lot of areas,” says Scott Porter, the district’s superintendent. “People are just trying to sustain what they have.”

For these smaller communities, where grants are mostly nonexistent, one alternative approach is collaboration. Porter’s students, for example, can now attend the University of Maine at Machias for certain classes.

Some Maine foundations are beginning to target rural communities. The Lerner Foundation recently announced that it would target grants toward middle schoolers in rural Maine. And the Perloff Family Foundation provides technology like 3D printers and aquaponics equipment specifically for many of Maine’s rural towns.

But the sources are still limited, and many educators hope the new referendum can help level the playing field.