A lot has changed in La Cañada Flintridge over four decades — political divides, buildings, businesses and, lest we forget, some questionable hairstyles and fashion trends — but one thing has remained the same: the community’s steadfast commitment to outstanding public schools.
LCF was built on the very idea of great schools, already woven into its fabric when it was incorporated in 1976, and most homebuyers today also will say the local school district’s superb reputation was the driving force behind their move to the tranquil foothill community.
A creator of that force, the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this school year, prompting dedicated volunteers and founding members to take a look back at what has put all the “extras” in extraordinary schools all these years. With the tagline “Because a great public school education isn’t free,” LCFEF has consistently raised nearly $2 million annually in recent years to help fund La Cañada Unified School District programs across its five schools. That has helped keep class sizes small and support the arts and humanities, languages, counselor salaries, technology and yearly endeavors that change to keep fresh, new ideas in curriculum and education.
“LCFEF is a phenomenal support. It allows our funding levels to match comparable districts, and it just really shows the depth and breadth of our community’s superlative commitment to our schools,” said LCUSD Superintendent Wendy Sinnette. “The capital they provide is so powerful in terms of long-term commitments and dedicated dollars to the district. They keep us going year after year and prepare us for the future.”
The foundation would not be so continuously successful without its highly skilled volunteers, noted Sinnette, adding, “They’ve been in on the ground level in terms of support from the very beginning. It impresses me completely how they step up every single year with countless hours of boots on the ground.”
To that end, it’s not surprising that the LCFEF board, made up of about 40 volunteer directors, was mobilizing this week to kick off its annual calling campaign. That’s when they spend several hours over two nights at Dilbeck Real Estate’s office, phoning local residents and making a pitch for donations to help boost spring fundraising efforts. So far this year, giving seems to be down about 30%, said LCFEF President Caroline Anderson. As of February, the amount raised was about $1.5 million, compared to $2.23 million in the 2017-18 school year.
According to studies on charitable fundraising, some analysts predicted earlier this year that donations to nonprofits might be negatively affected by a 2018 tax code overhaul, but Anderson emphasized that concrete factors behind the downturn in giving are hard to pinpoint.
“If I knew the reason, I would fix it!” said Anderson, who was en route to man the phones at Dilbeck. “I’ll try to be optimistic and say I hope to move the needle a little bit.”
This year, the annual LCFEF gala raised a record $600,000, with proceeds from a popular paddle-raising auction, titled “Helping Our Children Strive and Thrive,” earmarked for a new Wellness Center and College Career Center at La Cañada High School, as well as new wellness curriculum and teacher training at the elementary schools.
Anderson, who grew up in LCF, helped create this year’s foundation motto, “We’re Better Together,” a saying she is still out to prove. Slotted to become next year’s PTA president at Palm Crest Elementary, she’s seen firsthand how important it is for PTAs, and all individual school groups, to work in conjunction with LCFEF.
“You really can’t have one [group] without the other; we don’t fund the exact same things, and all of these pieces are needed to continue to give what you’re expecting your child to get in this district,” she said.
Thinking about LCFEF’s 40-year anniversary, Anderson said she hopes she can keep up the high standards developed for the organization’s leaders over the years, beginning with its founders.
“I find it just amazing that we had such forward-thinking founders, in so many ways. I’ve often wondered, ‘Would I have thought to create [LCFEF] 40 years ago?’”
LCFEF was created in 1978 to bridge the funding gap between what the district receives from the state and what it needs, but the foundation’s conception actually began in 1974, when the LCUSD Governing Board created a Citizens Advisory Committee. The committee was tasked with studying the potential impact of the Serrano v. Priest lawsuit, which ultimately propelled the passage of Proposition 13, limiting a community’s ability to keep property taxes working at the local level in support of its public schools. Now, taxes collected by the state are redistributed to local school districts according to a formula that consistently places LCUSD schools in the bottom 5% of funded districts in the state.
That first year, between 1975 and ’76, the committee met 16 times, held interviews and reviewed written materials to educate themselves and to inform and educate the Governing Board and the community regarding Serrano v. Priest and its impact on school finance, according to records kept by LCFEF’s first president, Neal Brockmeyer, and his wife, Molly, who was secretary.
Neal Brockmeyer, who was also one of five people on the initial task force committee, recalled those early years and the sense of urgency he, his wife and others felt to protect the district’s impending downturn in funds. They had a lot at stake, he noted. And before LCFEF could secure the district’s funding future, it had another, if not larger, looming problem: convincing an entire community of the need before they saw the doom and gloom firsthand.
“It was certainly a hard sell to begin with,” he said, noting that the new, complicated taxation process was hard to explain at first. But Brockmeyer, a corporate lawyer, had experience in fundraising at Stanford and Berkeley, and he helped push the issue forward. The group began making presentations everywhere they could.
“I remember one presentation I made at the La Cañada Coordinating Council and I got all these blank stares; it was really kind of a shocker for people who hadn’t been exposed to this issue yet,” he recalled. “But as word got out, people got together to discuss it and the idea really kicked in.”
“It wasn’t nearly as organized as it is now,” he added, chuckling at the recollection of asking friends to lick and stuff all the stamps and envelopes.
Another early foundation member, Sid Karsh, still owns the “S.O.S.” button indicating the original name of the organization. The letters initially stood for Save Our Schools, though later that title became Support Outstanding Schools.
Karsh, a longtime Realtor and LCFEF’s only three-term president, saw immediately the connection between strong schools and strong real estate values, and was able to help turn that into a talking point to drum up widespread support for LCFEF.
“We could all see the school financing was in danger, and I immediately thought it was a great idea,” he said, recalling a collection of about $300,000 and “boy, we thought that was a lot of money, nothing compared to what is raised now. It’s just wonderful how it’s grown over time, and it’s much more successful now than it was then.”
LCFEF was one of the first local foundations of its kind in the state, according to a Wall Street Journal article back in the day. Brockmeyer recalled receiving phone calls from neighboring school districts, for years afterward, in which they inquired how they could set up their own foundations.
Today, there are more than 600 similar foundations across the state.
The single biggest contributor to LCFEF’s annual monetary gift to the district is the LCFEF Endowment. Created by the foundation’s board of directors in 1992, the endowment has helped sustain the longevity of LCUSD’s programs, as donations to it are pooled and invested through a portfolio run by the California Community Foundation to create a perpetual source of income for the schools.
The endowment now is a whopping $8 million, and its board of trustees can contribute up to 5% of its funds to LCFEF’s general annual contribution.
Steve Vernon, LCFEF president in 1991-92, recalled the early debate surrounding the fund, which was rare at the time among nonprofit organizations, and the fear that it would cut into donations made to the LCFEF general fund.
“We debated endlessly about having an endowment fund,” Vernon said. “How would it look? Who would run it? We thought it would be nice to have a recurring source of income. Our worry was that we would cannibalize the annual fund; our hope is that wouldn’t happen. Whoa, it worked!”
It was Gene Stein, a longtime portfolio manager at Capital Group, who was the perfect man for the job, and he is widely credited for being the brains behind the mission to create the fund.
“We needed someone with expertise, and that was Gene. It gave the community confidence that the endowment fund would be done in a professional way. It was great having Gene leading that,” Vernon said.
Did he know that the fund would balloon to $8 million in just 27 years?
Well, that was the plan, laughed Stein. He and the trustees managed the portfolio through the Vanguard Wellington Fund for some 10 years before transferring it to the California Community Foundation to avoid any future problems.
Bill Shupper, LCFEF president in 1996-97, recalled how Stein came up with a hands-on approach to explaining just how the endowment would grow.
“He was able to do an illustration that showed perfectly just how, in so many years, it would be the single largest contributor to the general fund. He was the financial expert and really knew how to explain it in a way everyone understood,” Shupper said.
For his part, Stein still credits every single person who has helped volunteer to make LCFEF what it is today.
“It’s just extraordinary. There’s so much that goes into making a great institution,” he noted. “One of the things that the foundation provides is creating a sense of community. It really is the future of the whole city and the entire community.”
PAYING IT FORWARD
Over the years, each LCFEF president and board has created new goals and creative ways to increase participation in fundraising.
Deborah Weirick, former LCFEF executive director — one of the two paid positions existing at the foundation now — was also president of the organization in 2008. That happened to be the year of the Great Recession, and one of the only years the foundation did not generate an increase in fundraising dollars over the previous year.
“I always joke it’s my badge of honor,” she said. But she was left impressed at the diversity in ideas that came up that year to boost fundraising and, in years since, to help improve community participation. The breadth of new ideas to help improve the schools, including programs like Challenge Success and STEM education, has made them what they are today, she noted.
“I think the foundation has always tried to be really responsive to the needs of the kids and community and parents as a whole, we wanted to empower teachers,” she said, noting that “I still say ‘we’ even though I’m not a part of it anymore.”
The first LCFEF female president (in 1990-91), Meredith Reynolds, recalled one of the foundation’s earliest fundraisers, held in the parking lot of the former Reflections restaurant (where Dish is now located). A bidding war broke out over a car from JSB Motors, whose owner donated all the profits after the wholesale price.
“We really tried to diversify the fundraising. We wanted something for everyone,” she said. “With that auction … they kept bidding and bidding, until finally I turned to Brian Hull and said, ‘How about they both win?’ So he donated two cars.”
“I’m very, very proud to have been a part of the foundation. If you look at the longevity of LCFEF, it really is unbelievable,” Reynolds added.
Meanwhile, LCFEF Executive Director Marilyn Yang is working hard to turn around the dip in donations this year. The mother of twin 7th-graders, she jokes that she “came out of retirement” in corporate banking to help run the foundation.
“I’m a parent, first and foremost, and it is just not acceptable to me that we take that bottom-dollar amount. We just don’t agree to that, it’s just not good enough and that’s not why I bought into this neighborhood,” she said
“We have a top-performing school district. We really operate like a private school, yet we get funding toward the bottom of a public school district,” she added, noting that the $3,000 suggested donation for each family is just that, a suggestion. “If every single family could just contribute some, that would drastically change how we could help the district.”
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