When it comes to raising money for schools, the old bake sales and cookie drives just don't rake in the dough like they used to.
Schools face a double whammy these days: a declining property tax base coupled with Illinois being in arrears to many districts to the tune of millions of dollars in state aid.
So schools are leaning more often on community groups like parent-teacher organizations, booster clubs and education foundations to come up with scratch to pay for items such as library books, musical instruments and interactive white boards, special events and even athletic stadiums.
And from game nights to recycling drives, local parent and citizen groups are coming up with new ideas to meet rising expectations, even while dropping ideas that have grown tired or don't yield an adequate payoff.
In one example, the Sleepy Hollow Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization dropped its annual wrapping paper and catalog drive in favor of more creative ways to raise money for field trips, room parties and special presentations, said Denise Holtz, the organization's vice president.
"We got a lot of feedback from parents who said they would just rather write a check to school," Holtz said.
This year, the organization held a "no marathon marathon" that involved an attempt to break the world record for the most students linking arms. Each of the school's 500 pupils was given a goal of raising $75. In two weeks and with 50 percent participation, the school raised $26,000, or more than $100 on average for each participant.
"The school has asked us to fund more programs," Holtz said. "Things have gotten more expensive. We have purchased SMART Boards and would like to eventually buy iPads for students. We buy new library books. There is more pressure put on us now."
Part of the problem, Holtz said, is that payments from the state to Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300 and districts across the state are behind. At one point last year, the state owed District 300 about $11 million.
Furthermore, declining home values have contributed to the fiscal woes of school districts.
"I think the major reasons why school districts rely on groups is because tax revenues are down, so there's less and less money available for things that are not necessarily for the education of the school like stadiums and sports equipment," said Mike Bersani, president of the South Elgin High School Boosters Club.
The club successfully raised about $500,000 toward the construction of a new stadium through various fundraising avenues from raffles to the sale of engraved paving bricks. A majority of the funding was raised through corporate sponsors.
It took about four years to raise the money, Bersani said.
For smaller-scale school projects like sponsoring field trips or buying new books, groups must find ways to ask parents and friends for money without driving them away with constant requests.
The Parent-Teacher Organization at the Park Campus in Round Lake tries to provide affordable entertainment for families, as opposed to selling things that often end up at the back of the closet, said Diane Gonzalez, the PTO president. This year, the school will host its annual Valentine's Day Dance, which raised more than $2,000 last year.
"We wanted to make it more about families and move away from the sales," Gonzalez said. "Families still want to do things together and we can offer them an inexpensive night out so they get family time, too."
The school also holds an annual book fair that supports the school's library, which lost all funding from the district last year.
The Partnership for Inspired Education, which benefits DuPage High School District 88 and three feeder districts in DuPage County, focuses on one major fundraising event per year.
"It's not about we need more stuff," said Donna Cain, who is president of both the partnership and the District 88 school board. "We know what our students' needs are and it's a question of how we meet them."
The foundation co-sponsored a talent show, sold tickets to dinner theater and also supported a powder puff game between Addison Trail and Willowbrook high schools. The events raised more than $10,000, some of which was used to offset the costs of AP tests for students.
In a move that also benefits the environment, Rupley Elementary School in Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59, has turned to recycling. The school connected with a company that pays 2 cents per Capri Sun and chip bag. Debby Rogers, a member of the school's PTA, said the school also stopped selling magazine subscriptions and food and gift catalogs. Instead, it works with companies like Food 4 Less and Target that have community rewards programs that channel a percentage of money spent back to schools.
"We needed to find things that people were already spending their money on so that they were not having to spend any more money," Rogers said. "We started it full force this year and it seems to be catching on in the sense that people are excited and are more willing to participate."
It wasn't always such a challenge for groups to rustle up support from families and the school community.
Cathy Bonczyk, president of the Crystal Lake Central High School Boosters Club, said the club will hold a game night in March, which in the past has raised more than $15,000 for a number of the school's clubs. The funding has enabled the music club to purchase the rights to music and new instruments, while athletic organizations have purchased new warm-up uniforms and hurdles for the track team.
Bonczyk said a decade ago it wasn't unusual for a parent-teacher organization to raise more than $30,000 in one night.
"At those times the economy was doing well and we had a new school," Bonczyk said. "Everyone was willing to participate because we had goals to meet for new school equipment. But things are changing and we have to be more creative without asking people for a lot of cash out of their pockets up front."