Taking Schools Foundation to ‘next level’

School Board changes policies to allow involvement

By Elizabeth Celms
Mercer Island Reporter

The Mercer Island School Board is taking the Schools Foundation to the next level. The Mercer Island Schools Foundation (MISF), which has already raised $413,000 through phone-a-thon donations, will soon begin working beneath the School Board’s administrative umbrella as part of the Really Big Idea Committee.

In order to validate this unprecedented step, the board had to swiftly amend its governance policy to include the Really Big Idea Committee, which aims to redefine the district’s academic vision and follow through with ambitious fund-raising goals. On Oct. 11, administrators adopted the new group as an official School Board committee.

At present, membership includes two board members — working as liaisons between the district and the committee — three MISF representatives, the superintendent, Mercer Island Education Association (MIEA) president, and one City Council member. The committee, however, is still in its infancy and will be reorganized over the coming months.

“This has been an ongoing effort,” said Prady Misra, member of the MISF, who initially proposed the idea. “We felt that any big idea has to come from the people who are going to implement and support it. It has to come from inside our system, from our School Board, teachers and administrators.”

The committee is the brainchild of the MISF. Since last spring, the foundation has held a number of meetings in which its members, along with School Board representatives and district administrators, discussed the organization’s future.

Ultimately, the MISF and School Board decided that it would be in the district’s best interest to co-establish the Really Big Idea Committee. This would enable the two groups to work more closely together, as well as better facilitate communication between the district and the community as a whole.

“It’s a collaborative process,” Misra said. “The foundation’s role is not to make policies, it’s simply to support the schools. The more appealing a vision the district lays out, the easier it is for the foundation to raise money. So we thought that the School Board should take a more active role, which they most graciously decided to do.”

According to its governance policy, two of the School Board’s six members will sit on the Really Big Idea Committee. Their role is strictly diplomatic, serving as a liaison between the committee and fellow School Board members. The representatives will report all committee information back to the board, where it will then be discussed with the superintendent.

“The Really Big Idea Committee will function as a steering committee. Board members will be key players, insuring that this process is collaborative and inclusive,” said Interim Superintendent Gary Plano.

As an advisory group, the committee will function as a venue through which its members can propose and discuss ideas, not administer them. In the end, the responsibilities of each organization —the foundation to raise money, the School Board to administer policies — will not change.

According to Plano, all constituents are aware of their roles within the committee. The group’s first project, he added, will be to design a process “that is inclusive of the many voices in our community” while establishing a district-wide vision or “really big idea.”

The newly formed committee met on Nov. 1 to discuss this goal.

“We’re still gathering information,” Plano said after the meeting. “Listening to people and asking ourselves; ‘What does the future look like? Is there a really big idea? And if there is, what is it?”’

Although the School Board has always worked closely with the MISF, a private non-profit organization established in 1981, the two groups have never worked as collaborative partners. Until now.

Some may question whether the MISF, as a private organization, should be working as part of the district’s administrative team. But according to Cliff Foster, a private attorney for the MISD, the foundation’s new role within the district is perfectly acceptable.

“As long as the board has the final say, this advisory committee is legitimate,” Foster said, upon learning of the Really Big Idea Committee. “The mission of the foundation and School District is somewhat intertwined. As long as there’s no direct fiscal conflict, I don’t see any problem with this new committee.”

Mercer Island is not the only district in which foundation members work closely with their school board members. The Bellevue Schools Foundation, although not officially part of a school board sub-committee, also works hand-in-hand with district administrators.

“It is typical for subcommittees to make recommendations that are then approved by school board members,” said Jenny Selby, who previously worked for the Bellevue Schools Foundation.

In her opinion, news that Mercer Island now has a cohesive link between its foundation and district administrators is a positive thing.

“The fact that the superintendent is sitting at the table is great,” she said. “He’s the one who will have to engage and inspire donors by the execution of that vision. Funding must reflect a superintendent’s priorities.”

The MISF is critical to Mercer Island’s success as a school district. Last year, the foundation raised more than $841,000 for various academic programs — a record amount in its 25 years. Of this total, $75,800 went toward classroom enrichment, $75,000 toward extracurricular activities, and $197,343 toward teacher development and student support, among other needs.

Once the Really Big Idea Committee establishes a district-wide vision, the MISF will redirect its fund-raising efforts toward this cause. The foundation is already $3,000 ahead of last year’s earnings in phone-a-thon donations, and the Really Big Idea Committee has not even officially met yet.

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