Greater goods: The Fund is hustling for Philly students. And it doesn’t care who it pisses off

It was not Donna Frisby-Greenwood’s intention to offend anyone.But if you are a new resident benefitting from a tax abatement and felt some type of way upon receipt of a recent letter from The Fund for the School District of…

It was not Donna Frisby-Greenwood’s intention to offend anyone.

But if you are a new resident benefitting from a tax abatement and felt some type of way upon receipt of a recent letter from The Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, then the letter did what it was intended.

After receiving a manifest of names courtesy of City Councilwoman Helen Gym, The Fund got to work on drafting letters imploring residents to donate, even offering a formula to figure out how much you’ve saved on paying school taxes over the length of your abatement.

It was a notion that some agreed with and some clearly did not. Inez Ruiz, a mother of two from East Kensington, falls into the latter.

“We may own a newer home, but we’re in the same boat; it’s not like I have all this money that I have saved because of the tax break,” Ruiz told Philadelphia Weekly. “I understand why they send it, they’re looking for money, I get that, I just thought the letter didn’t take into account that not everyone can afford what these developers are charging for these homes these days who has the means to go beyond, that’s why the abatement is so appealing. I’ll donate sure, but don’t suggest I do the math, figure it out and send you a check, I’m just not OK with that.”

Well fair, but Frisby-Greenwood contends that since the letter, the Fund had 18 people donate, ranging in $25-$3,000. Of course, that’s 18 from a letter containing 14,345 households with an abated property.

So we asked Frisby-Greenwood – fresh off of major surgery just days before – on the Fund’s true intent and what else is coming down the pike that might set some people off.

What do you say to people who saw the letter as offensive?

We certainly were not trying to come off as harsh, we were trying to say here’s something for you to consider. Some people have already told us that they are interested in doing this, we just needed to make the ask, and so we’re asking. Certainly, we had no intention of offending anyone or guilting anyone. But if you’ve ever seen an annual appeal? They all make you feel guilty. That’s the whole idea. We’re just trying to ask people who have the means to give and who would’ve loved to give the opportunity.

Some people say that The Fund is putting the chicken before the egg. That the notion of development brings density, which in turn brings opportunity for city constructs. Does The Fund believe that development is already here and that we’re onto the next phase of growth which is aiding a cash strapped school district?

We don’t have any thought on it, either way, to be honest. I lived away from Philadelphia for 10 years living in New York, Washington [D.C.], and Los Angeles and when I came back, Philadelphia was changing in a very positive way, and it continues to grow as a city. We’re already seeing a population increase and that’s a really positive thing for our city whether it’s spurned by development or other things that are happening. I read one article recently that noted that more people move to Philadelphia from New York City than from Philadelphia to New York City … we never know what brings people into the city, it changes but I believe being able to find an affordable home is a big thing, but we just don’t have an opinion one way or another.

So you’ve done the letter which brought some success, what other methods of marketing are coming down the pike for The Fund?

Well, let’s start with what we have done. One of our first tasks was to help raise $7 million for school libraries in K-3 classrooms. It was called the ‘Right Books’ campaign. The goal was to have books on every level in every classroom so that your kid might be in second grade, but they’re reading on a third-grade level, there’s a book for them. Or maybe you have a kid that’s in third grade and reading on a kindergarten grade level we have books for them to read. But the important thing is that those books are aligned with the curriculum but that they can read and comprehend them based on their reading level. This was anchored to [SDP superintendent] Dr. [William] Hite’s goal of having every child in a public school reading on or above their grade level by fourth grade.

We received $3.5 from the Lenfest Foundation that we had to match and we did that through public donations.

That’s actually pretty novel (pun intended) but specifically now, what’s The Fund working on to raise money?

We’ve worked with Temple to raise funds to replace broken instruments to classrooms, there were nearly 1,000 broken instruments that were repaired and replaced last Fall.

What campaigns are you personally most excited about?

We’ve reached out to area restaurants and asked them to work with us. One of the ideas that is scheduled to happen in certain restaurants throughout the city is we are asking customers to give a tip for city schools we’re getting restaurants to work with us from February through March to add a line item on their receipts that allow people to give a tip. We are running that through February-March and this was after going to the Pennsylvania Restaurant Association and presented our plan and we received really great feedback on the idea. I think there were 32 restaurant owners at that meeting. We’re still working on the details, but our office should have the number of restaurants that signed on to this idea very soon.

We’ve also worked with a real estate company called the Goldenberg Group and we did our first dress down day. We asked people to purchase a t-shirt that read, ‘I dress down for Philly Public Schools’ and on the back listed every district school. So you paid $35 for the shirt and $20 when to the school that you designated and $15 paid for the making and shipping of the shirt. That had a lot of success last fall and we are planning to do it again this fall. We had companies like Jenkintown Building Services, that bought t-shirts for all their crews cleaning windows in the city and we had other businesses that care by shirts as well. It was a great campaign and one we’re looking forward to replicating in the future.

What do you want people to know about these schools that they may not know, especially new residents that moved here and benefit from the abatement?

Look, we know our schools get a bad rap. It’s just the way it is. But I know about these schools and there is a lot of good going on. For every failing student, we have three success stories. We have dedicated teachers and administrators. Sure, we’re poor, but we’re not hiding that and we as a District are doing a lot of good with the little that we do have. That’s why I believe in the work that The Fund is doing. We’re asking because we know it’s going to the right place and that’s to help our schools thrive.

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    Kerith Gabriel is the editor-in-chief at Philadelphia Weekly but somehow hasn’t figured out that means he doesn’t have to write nearly as much. Journalism has been in his blood since his beginnings as a sports writer over a decade ago for the Philadelphia Daily News.