School supply drive will test impact of economy

Predictions that the stumbling economy will hurt local charities will be tested Friday, when the first big campaign of the fundraising season kicks off to aid impoverished students.

Called the School Tools Campaign, the monthlong drive seeks donations of classroom supplies for schools where parents can't afford the basics.

Not once in the campaign's 12-year history has it failed to top – or at least match – its previous year's goal. But this year the region's largest school charitable drive faces a triple threat: rising unemployment, a record number of poor students and fewer expected donations.

“A lot of families who were living on the borderline are now struggling,” says Sarah Porter of Classroom Central, a campaign co-sponsor. “When it comes to buying gas for the car, paying the electric bill, or buying school supplies, those parents are buying gas and electricity.”

The campaign, which stretches across 22 counties, invites donors to purchase school supplies and place them directly in donation barrels at sites, such as Food Lion and Ashley Furniture Home Stores. The supplies are then redistributed in the same county where they were collected.

Last year, the campaign supplied 26,000 Charlotte-Mecklenburg students, which was still only about half the number in need. All told, the district had 63,801 students living at or below the poverty level last year, a record 47 percent of total school enrollment.

If the enrollment increases by a predicted 4 percent this fall, that means at least 2,200 more impoverished students.

Meanwhile, the region has been peppered with news of buyouts, cutbacks and promises of thousands of layoffs in coming months.

“There are going to be fewer dollars to go around, so I think it's safe to say that we're going to have troubles this year,” says Bill Anderson of Communities in Schools, another campaign co-sponsor. “We're afraid donations are going to be quite a bit less.”

Looking for a back-up plan

Studies released by Giving USA show giving fell in 1980, 1987 and 1990, all years when the economy was in a downturn. In 2001, the nation's last economic slowdown, giving fell 2.3 percent from the previous year, but experts say it took three years to bounce back.

That adds to the anxiety of local nonprofits. Some also fear negative donor reaction to how the United Way of Central Carolinas has handled compensation for its chief executive, Gloria Pace King. The agency, which provides funds to 98 local nonprofits, paid King $365,000 in salary and bonus, and more than $822,000 in retirement contributions last year. The United Way board has said the money compensates for six years of low contributions to King's pension fund. The United Way's annual fund campaign starts Sept. 1.

Communities in Schools, which is among the agencies served by United Way, is already talking about a possible back-up plan, should the School Tools campaign fall short this year.

“We've been talking about encouraging schools to work with businesses and organizations in their neighborhoods to make up the difference,” says May Johnston of Communities in Schools.

“The problem is, not all schools are equal, in terms of the assets in their areas. They simply don't have the connections and that means some students will simply do without.”