By Jennifer Gray
Jenny Motes knows she is fortunate to teach in the Mountain Brook school system. “Before the school year even started, I was able to attend a week of technology training,” Motes said. “I learned how to use all of the wonderful equipment we have in the classroom such as the Interact pad and document camera.”
Motes, a first year teacher at Crestline Elementary, uses this technology in her kindergarten classroom daily. “The use of these tools makes classroom time so much more engaging,” Motes said. “The students don’t sit and stare while I teach. They are actively engaged, using the technology. I can have them changing positions in the classroom, using the Interact pad along with me.”
The learning experience that Motes and other Mountain Brook teachers are creating for students is possible because of the gifts made to the school system by the Mountain Brook City Schools Foundation. The Foundation steps in and fills the funding gaps that are left by statewide proration and other funding shortfalls.
Mountain Brook resident Lisa Rutherford is on the Board for the MBCS Foundation. “The foundation is critical in helping our students to always move forward with new technologies and techniques that keep them well prepared for the future,” Rutherford said. “Our students are already familiar with the technology being used at colleges and will be better students there as a result.”
As many Americans have been dealing with economic setbacks that began in 2008, so have school systems across the country. Mountain Brook is no different. Despite the city’s reputation as being one of the most affluent communities in the country, the sting of the longest lasting recession and the collapse of the housing market have been felt here too.
The 2010-2011 school year marks the third year in a row that schools in Alabama are experiencing proration. Proration is where the state cuts the funding to the schools. This has happened in the state of Alabama 19 years since 1950.
“This (proration) was a $1.3 million impact last year on Mountain Brook schools. This year they anticipate close to a $1 million less,” says Carmine Jordan, director of the Mountain Brook City Schools Foundation.
Another challenge the Mountain Brook schools are facing for the first time is a drop in its tax revenue. This is revenue generated from property taxes, and of course, the amount of property tax paid is based on the value of the property.
“Our local school revenues are directly affected by the drop in home values.” Superintendent Dicky Barlow said. “and 59% of our budget comes from our local revenues.”
A strong school system and high property values go hand in hand. “If our school system isn’t good there isn’t much reason to move to Mountain Brook,” Jordan said. “Our property taxes are some of the highest in the state, although still low for the southeast. Because of the schools, people want to live in Mountain Brook.”
Even if you do not have children in the Mountain Brook schools, everyone in our city benefits from a strong school system. “A good school system is a vital factor in the value of the real estate here,” said Leah Rice, an agent with RealtySouth in Mountain Brook. “It unites the community.”
Other over the mountain schools such as Homewood and Vestavia have also faced a similar decline in property values and experienced their impact on their school’s budget. But one big difference between Mountain Brook and those cities is the commercial tax base. Schools receive a percent of the commercial taxes collected.
What are school systems to do?
Fortunately for the Mountain Brook School System, a group of citizens started talking about how to battle the constant budget cuts that faced the schools back in the early 1990’s. The result was the creation of the Mountain Brook City School Foundation.
Jordan said that they began by putting together a board to consider the strategies and the role the foundation should play. “In 1994, we started inviting parents to meetings and getting feedback from them,” she said.
By 1995, they were ready to start a campaign to raise funds. The goal was to have an endowment so that money will always be there. In that first capital campaign, almost $5 million was raised. “People were given yards signs to put in their yard if they contributed. It really helped draw attention to what we were doing,” Jordan said. Another push came in 2004 with a big campaign that was also successful in meeting a second financial goal.
The foundation has been giving back to the Mountain Brook Schools ever since that first year. “We really wanted to give back that first year to show the community that we were going to make a difference in the schools,” Jordan said. And they have given every year since 1995.
As of this year, the total amount of money that has been given since that first contribution went to more than $4 million.
Making a difference
Crestline Principal Laurie King will tell you first hand how the foundation has impacted teachers. “The Foundation has been crucial in its continued support of Mountain Brook’s professional development efforts,” she said. “Teachers receive stipends for attending summer staff development which are funded by the Foundation.”
This past summer, more than 10,000 hours of instruction were given to teachers and the foundation paid for half. “They (teachers) would have had to pay that half without us. And look at all the teachers that sign up and go!” Jordan said. Teachers attended 1,712 sessions — meaning that of the 400 teachers most teachers signed up for multiple sessions over the summer.
Lisa Rutherford, agrees. “This is the third year of proration,” she said. “The Foundation helps pay for things we would never have in the school system such as technology, our libraries, and especially the professional development opportunities. Professional development for our teachers allows them to learn how to maximize the tools and technology we have given them and create the best learning experience possible for the students.”
Back to the Basics
Requests for funds are made each year. The Board of Education does an assessment of the school’s needs and requests for the next year. Then the faculty does a presentation in the spring in front of the foundation’s Board of Directors. The Board of Education is always asked to prioritize their needs.
In the past, requests for distributions from the foundation have been for the “extras” in the classroom. However, some of the recent requests have been for items that would have been paid for out of the school budget in the past.
“The committee tries to give to the things they think are most effective,” Jordan said. “The areas of teacher training, technology, and library enhancement have been the main focus over the years. These areas will have the biggest impact on the classroom.”
Past gifts have included small keyboards that fit the hands of kindergartners. They have also funded reading coaches, and various classroom technologies. Another recent gift has been funding for two math coaches that float between the elementary schools.
When asked what impact the foundation has had on Crestline, Laurie King said, “I would have to say the technology that the Foundation has funded has been the greatest gift to Crestline. Our sound field systems, document cameras, projectors, and laptops allow our teachers and students tremendous opportunities for truly engaging and challenging teaching and learning.”
Superintendent Dicky Barlow said the foundation is crucial to the schools. “The Mountain Brook Schools Foundation has been critical in our effort to continue effective professional development for our staff along with providing technology that promotes innovation,” Barlow said.