This past weekend, I had the discomfiting pleasure of attending my school’s annual benefit. It was a $150/plate affair hosted at a local country club with more than one hundred years of history, itself located in a quasi-private community originally built to serve as a game preserve for Manhattan blue bloods. The night included a cocktail hour complete with open bar and passed hors’deourves, a buffet style dinner, a silent auction, a live auction, a poker tournament, live entertainment, and dancing — all enjoyed by men in dark suits and women in fancy evening gowns. For those of you who know me, my characterizing of my attendance as such an event as a “discomfiting pleasure” might seem obvious from the two previous sentences. You are probably thinking that the free flowing booze, food, and gambling were enjoyed while the stuffiness of the affair was tolerated.
But you’d only be half right.
Independent school benefits — and other forms of fundraising — strike a peculiar blend of both exacerbating and confronting economic inequality in our schools. Nowhere is the vast spread of economic standing among our various constituent members more obvious than at an event where some people are bidding thousands (yes, thousands) of dollars while other people can’t even afford the price of admission. Some of the items up for auction are of great monetary value: vacation homes, gift certificates, golf clubs, and the like. If wealthy folk want to overspend on such luxury items with the money going to support a school, well, so be it. But other items are a bit trickier to make peace with. Pizza parties with beloved teachers. The prime parking spot in front of the school. Head for a day. The name of the road leading up to the school. All of those can be had… for a price. And these items sometimes fetch the biggest bids, despite having little to no practical value — monetarily or otherwise. But they do carry with them some real social cachet. Your child won head for a day? Well, you just bought her an experience none of her classmates will have. And that can be immensely valuable to people who tend to look at such things in such ways. Watching all of this unfold — the excess, the financial peacocking, who is and is not present at such events — can make one’s stomach turn.
But then there is the other side. The fact is that such events keep schools in the black. Tuition and returns on the endowment do not cover the full costs of educating our students. It varies from school to school, but tuition tends to cover just 75-90% of the actual costs of their education (which includes salaries and benefits to faculty and staff, overhead, supplies, insurance, marketing, etc.). That difference needs to be made up somehow. Benefits and fundraising are how it happens. The alternative would be increasing tuition across the board, thereby pricing out families who are just scraping by. So rather than be present in the school and absent from the auction, these families would simply cease to exist to us. That hardly seems better.
I realize I have created a bit of a false dilemma here: gala auctions on the one hand and a more economically homogenous school on the other. That isn’t necessarily the case. Schools can — and often do — find ways to make fundraising and contributing to the financial well-being of the school more accessible. For instance, my school auctioned off one “Head for the Day” prize and awarded another via a raffle with very affordable tickets. This meant the opportunity to which such an experience was not limited to the uber rich. Given that there is no financial outlay for us to provide such a prize, this was a rather easy way to expand the pool of people who might win and also the pool of people who felt they were contributing to their child’s school — itself something very valuable. There is surely more we can be doing — and hopefully more we will do — so that we can continue to reap the benefits that come from a funding model as is typically employed by independent schools while also creating a community that is diverse and equitable. Until that time — and possibly even then — we need to accept the uneasiness that comes when events like the one I attended on Saturday are necessary to keep schools like mine afloat.