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School district hopes to tap generous island residents to fund major projects

STORY BY GEORGE ANDREASSI (Week of February 18, 2021)

School Board Chairman Brian Barefoot wants to enlist generous residents of the barrier island to enhance academic, athletic and artistic opportunities for Indian River County’s public school students and fund major capital projects for the school district.

Barefoot last month proposed the school district form a nonprofit foundation to raise, manage and spend money for educational facilities and programs, and the School Board voted unanimously to hold a public hearing in March on a policy guiding the proposed foundation.

A key strategy is raising enough money to create endowments to fund specific capital projects, such as a running track for Vero Beach High School, or annual awards for top teachers, Barefoot said.

“I think there’s a lot of interest all of a sudden in public education in this county that wasn’t there before, just from lack of awareness,” Barefoot said.

“People have said to me, ‘How can I help?’ They really get the importance of this additional way of funding priorities you just don’t have the money for, particularly in this environment.”

Barefoot’s wide-ranging fundraising experience includes his service as vice chairman of the Cleveland Clinic Indian River Foundation, the hospital’s fundraising arm, which has raised tens of millions for hospital projects.

Several board members said they don’t want the new organization to compete against the Education Foundation of Indian River County, an independent nonprofit that raises $500,000 per year to benefit students and teachers.

“I think we need to be very careful that we don’t overlap or get in their way at all,” said board member Teri Barenborg, who was involved with the foundation as a teacher when it formed in 1991.

“I certainly don’t want to take away from any funding they’re going to get,” Barenborg said. “I think we need to be very clear in what our mission is going to be. And one of the ideas we’ve been talking about is big projects, big ideas, big things that can help us with school choice.”

The Education Foundation nevertheless expressed concern that creation of a school district foundation might a potential threat to its existence.

“While the creation of such a foundation would likely impact the EFIRC’s operational capabilities, we are still working to determine the scope of any impact,” the foundation said last month in a prepared statement.

“In order for both foundations to co-exist and for the EFIRC to continue its mission to education in Indian River County, increased coordination and communication between the school district foundation and the EFIRC would be critical in order to avoid duplication of services and prevent unfulfilled needs.”

The Education Foundation’s programs include STEP into Kindergarten, a Summer transition program; the Vision for Reading program, which helps students get eyeglasses; the Sneaker Exchange program, which provide students new sneakers; High Impact Grants, which funds individual teacher and school site projects; and the annual Indian River Regional Science and Engineering Fair.

Barefoot outlined a vision for a school district foundation that would operate similarly to the hospital’s foundation, which has raised tens of millions of dollars for new cancer and heart centers.

“The way the Hospital Foundation works is: When the hospital has a need, it comes to the foundation and the foundation kicks into gear,” Barefoot said. “It goes out and it raises the money to meet the needs of the hospital.

“People can get excited about things they can relate to,” Barefoot said. “Athletics could be an obvious focus – athletic facilities – music could be an obvious focus.”

Another possibility would be raising $1 million for an endowment that would generate $40,000 per year for scholarships and other rewards for top teachers, Barefoot said.

Schools Superintendent David Moore said he would create a list of initiatives that could be funded by the district foundation.

“I do not see this as anything that is competing with any other not-for-profit,” Moore said. “I do see this as an opportunity to fill funding gaps from the state of Florida, ensuring our schools have access to high quality programs and resources.”