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VOL. 119 | NO. 155 | Monday, August 29, 2005

Business Leaders Seek to Raise Funds for Schools

By Andy Meek

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PRIVATE EFFORT: Greater East High Foundation director Bill Sehnert and chairman Charles McVean, L to R, discuss fund-raising efforts at East High School. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

When Charles McVean, a successful commodities trader with his own investment firm, wanted to reverse years of decline at his alma mater, the idea of forming the Greater East High Foundation with the help of several business leaders was born.

McVean, whose classmates referred to him as "Chas," is financing the bulk of the multimillion-dollar fund-raising campaign, which began late last year to fund improvements at the school and to pay student tutors.

His eighth-grade teacher at East, Margaret Taylor, is director emeritus of the new foundation, which is ramping up its operations this year and seeking more volunteers.

And now, Central High School alumni are following suit. Principal Greg McCullough said a $3.5 million fund-raising campaign recently kicked off for the school, led by Dr. Thomas Stern, a Central alum and a cardiologist with Stern Cardiology Clinic. Part of the money raised from that effort will go toward renovations.

Private involvement. Down the road, McVean wants more business people to get involved at local schools for the same reason national foundations poured $1.23 billion into grants to elementary and secondary schools in 2003.

"The problems with our public schools are not solvable within a bureaucratic environment," said McVean, whose foundation spent about $250,000 at East last year and will spend almost $1 million this year. "It's going to take risk-taking to come up with test programs that work."

William Bessire, who graduated with McVean in 1961, said seeing fund-raising efforts spread to other schools in the city was a major aim from the program's beginning.

Private Funding
Foundation giving to public schools reached $1.23 billion in 2003 (most recent data), compared with $620 million in 1998.

"That was part of Chas' thinking when he got it started," said Bessire, executive vice president of Consulting Services Group in Memphis. "We were hoping this would be a catalyst to get something going at other schools."

And McVean isn't the only one preaching that strategy. Wealthy business people, corporate givers and large foundations across the country - aware of the mega-grants colleges and universities usually receive - have been pouring billions into public schools in recent years. According to a recent story in The New York Times, such donations now surpass grants for higher education.

Global competition. But a lack of school funding isn't the only reason national institutions such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are writing sizeable checks to the nation's public schools. As with McVean's fledgling group, which pays tutors $10 an hour to mentor younger students, many donors want their money to be used to put reforms in place that wouldn't be seen otherwise.

At a National Education Summit earlier this year, Bill Gates bluntly explained the reason behind his involvement: "America's high schools are obsolete." In an interview with the Associated Press, he explained that today's high schools, for several reasons, aren't teaching students what they need to know to be successful.

That's why McVean said more needs to be done for schools in Memphis.

"We have full-time observers, let's call them, in China, and we have an agent in India," McVean said. "We watch the world out there, and it's very clear to me that we are either going to straighten out these public schools or the United States' position in the world will begin a relentless erosion. I don't think there's any doubt about that This problem with public education may be the single most critical issue facing this country as we speak. So what we're trying to do is identify some core processes that will work, that are scalable and repeatable."

Raising money. Greg McCullough, principal at Central, said school officials have been talking about a fund-raising campaign for several years, and he is hopeful that once renovations are complete, a trust fund can be set up from leftover funds to address future needs.

"We do have a $500,000 matching grant that's out there that's anonymous right now, so we are part of the way there already to reaching our goal," McCullough said. "We're excited, and I think it's nice to get the alumni involved."

Worthwhile investment. McVean is confident that in the long run, the foundation will prove to be a worthwhile investment.

"At the moment, we're continuing to gamble with my family's money," he said. "That's until we can satisfy ourselves statistically and factually that we have a program that's working - then we'll seek to scale up the operation using, partially, other people's money. There are a number of business people - much, much bigger guys than I am - who share my feelings about this situation. What we're doing is we are trying to develop a program that we believe will improve these students in a very cost-effective fashion. And we think we've invented a scheme that's going to work."

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