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Wisconsin public schools' use of education foundations is 'growing exponentially'

Students utilize the 'Solutionist Studio' at Bay Harbor Elementary School in Suamico. (Photo credit: WLUK)
Students utilize the 'Solutionist Studio' at Bay Harbor Elementary School in Suamico. (Photo credit: WLUK)
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SUAMICO, Wis. (WLUK) -- There’s a growing trend of using private money in public school districts. To do that, more and more districts are creating public education foundations.

From athletics, to the arts and academics, the schools in the Howard-Suamico School District are seeing major upgrades through the help of the district’s education foundation.

“Our foundation really serves as a kickstart to get a project up and going initially that then can sustain itself,” said Nicole Smith, executive director of the Howard-Suamico Education Foundation.

In 2020, Smith guided a campaign that raised just under $1.4 million. The money helped pay for new turf baseball and softball fields, more than tripling the size of the high school weight room, modernizing the technology and lighting in the performing arts center, and creating Solutionist Studios in all five elementary schools.

District officials say the rest of the money, $5.5 million, for the upgrades came from budget surpluses.

“Our budget really allows us to kind of maintain the necessities in the schools, but we are so lucky to have a community that believes in and values the importance of public education and sees that investing in our students is really investing in our community and in the future, so they really step up to make these kind of opportunities possible,” said Smith.

“It’s always nice to be outside of the classroom, have hands on learning experience,” said Brian Stuelpner, one of 11 board of directors for the Howard-Suamico Education Foundation and father to four daughters in the district.

Stuelpner says seeing the impact of the foundation made it easy for himself and others to become involved.

“I see it in their faces when they come home and they talk about what we did some maker space type stuff or we’ve been able to try new and different things, we’ve done robotics,” said Stuelpner.

Those opportunities likely wouldn’t be possible if the district relied solely on tax dollars, according to Howard-Suamico Superintendent Damian LaCroix.

LaCroix says the foundation was created in the mid-1990s in response to revenue caps being placed on school districts.

“A consequence of that was for almost 30 years now, we’ve had to run harder and faster than almost all of our counterparts throughout the state of Wisconsin,” said LaCroix. “So, we’re a low revenue district because we were a low spending district back in the early 1990s. The only way to overcome that is to either change the revenue cap law or to go to operations referenda, which we had to do twice in the last several years.”

LaCroix says that amount likely would have been higher without the generosity of donors through the education foundation.

While Howard-Suamico uses its foundation to upgrade things like technology and athletics, other school districts have education foundations serving much different purposes.

“They all do different things,” said Sarah French, the only Wisconsin representative on the board of directors for the National Association of Education Foundations. “There are public school district foundations where all they do is scholarships or there are public school foundations where all they do is like helping their students and families in need with school lunches and winter gear when it’s cold out.”

French recently went from leading Eau Claire’s public schools education foundation to helping fundraise for the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s foundation.

“There really isn’t any one size fits all when it comes to public education foundations because every school district is unique, every community is unique,” said French.

French says the use of foundations is growing exponentially, not only in Wisconsin, but across the country. She doesn’t see it slowing down either.

“We used to have tax dollars supporting almost everything that we needed for public education and they don’t anymore,” said French. “Private support for public education is critical in making sure that our kids have the same opportunities that the kids of 10, 20, 50 years ago had.”

FOX 11 asked LaCroix if he believes it is easier for Howard-Suamico to see success with its education foundation with the district considered to be among the more wealthy in Brown County.

“A little known fact is about 20% of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch,” said LaCroix. “While that pales in comparison to some other larger urban areas, I think the question of whether it is easier is a relative question. I don’t think it’s any easier for us than it would be for any other district in the greater Green Bay area to go out and make that happen. The question is do you recognize the opportunity and are you willing to use education foundations as a vehicle for making some of those enhancements happen.”

If a district is interested in starting a foundation, LaCroix recommends consulting with another district that has an established one.

Howard-Suamico’s education foundation also recently gathered $23,000 to split between peer-nominated staff members of the year at each of the district’s eight schools, in the form of grants and stipends.

Since 2009, the foundation has also provided $175,000 in teacher grants.

The foundation also has a Donors Choose page, which is similar to a GoFundMe page, that has raised more than $166,000 for 307 classroom projects.

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