Private organization supports rural district

A private foundation is credited for improved test scores and go-on rates in a rural North Idaho school district.

Over the past 13 years, the Panhandle Alliance for Education, an independent, community-based foundation, has strictly focused its funds on helping the Lake Pend Oreille School District.

marcia wilson
Marcia Wilson

“What we are doing is not really unique, what is unique is that a small town in Idaho is able to pull this off,” said Panhandle Alliance for Education Executive Director Marcia Wilson.

Around the same time PAFE was founded, student achievement in the district started to increase.

The hundreds of thousands of dollars PAFE put into the Consortium for Reading Excellence, which was implemented throughout the district, is credited for the rise in test scores by many of the district’s teachers, said Shawn Woodward, Lake Pend Oreille School District superintendent.

Bill Berg and his wife Mindy Cameron founded PAFE in 2002. Berg, an attorney, and Cameron, a former editor at the Seattle Times, relocated to northern Idaho and saw that the public schools needed help. The idea was to have citizens and businesses in the community donate money to help fund the public school system.

PAFE was modeled off the Seattle Foundation. Berg and Cameron, longtime Seattle residents, saw that organization thrive and thought it would work in Sandpoint.

“We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” Wilson said, “We’re just trying to do what worked in Seattle.”

While the model was borrowed, Sandpoint businesses brought PAFE to life.

When the foundation started, Coldwater Creek, a Sandpoint-based clothing retailer, was having a difficult time recruiting potential employees from other fashion companies. One of the main concerns for people leaving big towns and coming to Sandpoint was the quality of public education, Wilson said.

Coldwater Creek got behind PAFE because it believed it would help the public school system, which in return would help its business.

To raise funds, Coldwater Creek invited its vendors to Sandpoint for a charity golf tournament every year. The tournament usually brought in close to half a million dollars, Wilson said. The golf tournament continues, but Coldwater Creek filed for bankruptcy in 2014 and shuttered operations.

“It was a big blow,” Wilson said. “We miss their support and we miss that constant knowing for sure that we are going to have that money.”

Wilson said PAFE leaders always were surprised by how much money would be raised every year so saved a large majority of it for “a rainy day.”

Today PAFE has an endowment of $3.5 million, and provides $200,000 a year to the school district. Money from fundraising events, such as the golf tournament and a gala, are added to that $200,000.  PAFE puts close to $500,000 into the district every year, Wilson said.

Foundation donors are able to earn Idaho income tax credits after the 2015 Legislature extended a law that was to sunset. Initially, some lawmakers opposed extending the tax credit, claiming the state should have more control over donations. That opposition was soundly defeated.

Here are a few programs PAFE supports:

  •  Teacher grants — Since 2003, PAFE has given out more than $1.36 million to individual teachers. The grants have paid for everything from classroom technology to musical instruments and math and book clubs.
  • Hiring a college guidance counselor — The counselor focuses on college and careers for students. In 2015, 83 percent of graduating seniors planned on going to some sort of secondary school. Before PAFE hired the counselor, only 50 percent of seniors went on to college.
  • Academic programs — PAFE financially supports a number of programs at the district, including programs that focus on reading, writing and full-day kindergarten.
  • Instructional coaches — PAFE provided funding for instructors to help teachers implement Common Core and other new standards. 

Wilson credits PAFE’s success on community support. Wilson is PAFE’s only full-time employee (there are two part-time employees), so the foundation relies on others to help out.

“If we didn’t really have good partnerships with our community — PAFE being one of them — then we wouldn’t be seeing the kind of success that we do,” Woodward said.

The organization’s board of directors is made up of 25 community leaders.

“It has become kind of a badge of honor to be on our board,” Wilson said.

The community’s commitment to the district has been a tool in recruiting and retaining educators, including Woodward.

“When I was researching school districts to come to, I definitely looked at passage rates of levies and I definitely looked at if there was some kind of nonprofit that supported education and I am not alone at doing that,” he said. “Having something like PAFE helps keep people around. Teachers feel like they are being treated like professionals and they are being supported by the community.”

Despite PAFE’s success in Sandpoint, few other districts in the state enjoy similar support.

“We have not been able to influence (others to start similar foundations). We encourage and we are willing to help anyone who would want to start a foundation like this,” Wilson said. “If every school district had a foundation like this, our problems with education in Idaho would be a thing of the past.”