Millions of taxpayers will receive checks this summer as part of the federal government’s plan to stimulate the lagging economy.
While there are a number of ways that families and individual citizens can put this money to good use, a Santa Monica couple will be using theirs in a very unusual fashion.
Claudia Reisenberger and Joel Cichowski will be contributing their government largess to the Ocean Charter School, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school in Del Rey that has been in operation for four years. They have chosen to donate their $1,800 check to the school in an effort to stave off severe cuts to school programs that are in jeopardy.
Charter schools often must rely on fundraising to offset many of the costs that traditional schools do not have to consider, such as paying rent at a particular location.
“We typically have less money coming in, so any cuts to funding that we receive from the state can have a strong impact on our ability to sustain certain programs,” said Dean Kubani, who is a member of the board of trustees at Ocean Charter.
Kubani said that the cutbacks would cause the charter school to lose at least $200,000 this year.
Cichowski, an architect, said in a recent interview that the idea to donate their stimulus check was born after a school board meeting where the reductions to school districts were discussed.
“It was a very grim meeting,” Cichowski recalled. “We had been brainstorming about what we could do, and when the budget cuts were announced, we decided that we should do whatever we could to help our children.”
“This really is a last resort effort for us,” added Reisenberger, a public artist. “The budget cutbacks have been very detrimental to many of our special programs at our school.”
They call their donation the “Ocean Charter School Stimulus Package,” and in a letter in May, they relayed the reasons they and other parents at the school have agreed to voluntarily contribute to the effort to prevent the elimination of portions of the school’s activities and programs.
“Our school is — as are all other public schools — hard hit by [Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s] cuts of roughly ten percent of its operating budget,” the couple wrote. “Even with the most diligent grant writing and fundraising, the school will not be able to make up for these losses, and is facing the difficult decision [concerning] which parts of its wonderful arts-integrated curriculum to let go.
“In light of these challenges, we came up with a surprisingly simple ‘solution’ to our school’s budget shortfall. We called it the ‘Ocean Charter School Stimulus Package’.”
The donations will qualify for a tax deduction when they file their 2008 tax returns next year, which could be an incentive for some to donate their check to the school.
The Santa Monica parents, whose daughter will be attending first grade at Ocean Charter in the fall, are typical of many of the parents at the charter school, said Kubani, who is Santa Monica’s director of the office of sustainability and environmental programs.
“Parents have always been very supportive of our school,” he said. “I think that it’s fantastic that parents are taking the initiative to try and offset these very drastic budget cuts.”
Ocean Charter is a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District, which, like all state school districts, is facing steep cutbacks to its budget.
JosÈ Cole-GutÌerrez, executive director of the district’s charter school division, has seen how the state fiscal crisis is having a domino effect on independent schools like Ocean Charter.
“Districtwide, everyone is reeling from these massive budget cuts,” Cole-GutÌerrez told The Argonaut. “What we’re seeing is parents continuing to be engaged in their schools on so many levels, and that is very encouraging.”
The action that Reisenberger and Cichowski are taking by donating their economic stimulus checks to their school is indicative of the creative ways that many are employing in an era of diminishing funds for many school districts, says Cole-GutÌerrez.
“We’re seeing parent groups do this across the board,” he says. “At charter schools, they are able to donate money that will go directly to that school site, which can in turn be directed to restore certain programs or fund other activities.”
Reisenberger said that several parents at the school have recently agreed to turn their stimulus checks over to the school in order to save two programs that both the students and parents enjoy.
“One is a music class that teaches children percussion and string instruments like violin,” Reisenberger explained. “The other is a Spanish language instruction class, which the children like very much.
“In a city like Los Angeles, it is really essential to have that instruction in another language, especially if that language is Spanish.”
Cichowski said that he and his wife were simply looking for a way to continue what he hopes will sustain the good work that school officials have done since Ocean Charter opened in 2004.
“We wanted to do something for our family, and if we can get a few more families to contribute it might be significant,” he said.
There are other families that will be joining them in donating their stimulus checks to the school, said Reisenberger.
“Some of them haven’t received their checks from the government yet, so it’s just a matter of them getting the checks before they will give it to the school, as we are doing,” she said.
Cole-GutÌerrez said that one of the most important components of the action that the Ocean Charter parents are initiating is that it is voluntary.
“That’s a very important point,” he said. “It is really good news to hear that parents are stepping up to the plate, and it shows that parents and teachers want a quality education for their children and students.”
Kubani also believes that seeing parents making the sacrifice to donate money that could be used for personal use is inspiring.
“It’s really fantastic to see this kind of support from our parents,” said Kubani, who has two children enrolled at the charter school and plans to donate half of his family’s $1,800 stimulus check to Ocean Charter. “We have tried to minimize the cutbacks that we have to make due to the state budget reductions, and we have tried to increase our fundraising.
“So any amount of money that is donated is significant.”
The music and language classes will probably not be restored until next year, said Reisenberger, but the effort is under way to deter eliminating other programs.
Reisenberger and Cichowski say that they are taking a stand for what they believe in, and they hope that other parents across Los Angeles do as well.
“We believe very strongly about what a great school is and what it can mean to our children,” Reisenberger concluded. “It will be a powerful message to our government when all these ‘rebate’ checks are being cashed by our schools.”