Mary Kay Larson is marking the close of the Lake Oswego Schools Foundation's 2016-17 campaign this month, as well as her one-year anniversary as executive director of the nonprofit organization.
"I keep thinking back to this time last year," Larson says. "So much has happened. It's kind of surreal."
During the past year, Larson and her team have focused on reaching out not only to those involved with local schools but to everyone in the community, including business leaders at Nike and Intel. As a result, the organization got 45 percent of parents and about 17 percent of all households in Lake Oswego to participate in the campaign, an increase from 44 percent of parents and 15 percent of all households last year.
"Successful executive directors need to be able to lead, manage and inspire teams of volunteers," Larson says. "I had a lot of people pulling for my success, and the success of the Foundation. I am very touched and grateful for everyone's support."
Larson also landed the screenwriters of "The Lego Movie" — Lakeridge High School graduates Dan and Kevin Hageman — to speak at the annual Foundation luncheon on Jan. 31. That event and an evening Q&A with the brothers brought in $78,400.
So far, she's raised more than $1.5 million in the campiagn that ended June 30, with pledges that involve business matches expected to continue rolling in through the end of July. "Once we have those in hand," she says, "we'll have our grand total for the campaign."
What the Foundation has raised will be enough to fund the 2017-18 salaries of 20 teachers, who will be assigned to all 10 operating schools within the Lake Oswego School District. That's three more teachers than last year, four more than the year before and two more than in 2014-15.
Larson, who spent 12 years in public relations in the Bay Area, says she relished being a part of the 30-year celebration of the Foundation, which started out offering teachers small grants, usually about $500 apiece. In 1995, the Foundation chose to shift the organization's focus to supporting the salaries of additional educators, who teach a wide variety of core classes and electives.
Larson came on board in July 2016, replacing interim executive director Jennifer Zagacki, a longtime local volunteer. She previously served as the public relations manager for the successful Lake Oswego School District levy campaign in 2013, as well as a volunteer on the Lake Oswego Bond Development Committee and the School Advisory Committee for Hallinan Elementary.
For next year's campaign, Larson says she plans to continue the theme of bringing back local grads to speak at the Foundation's fundraising luncheon. On tap for January 2018: Lake Oswego High School alumnus Michael Jones, a venture capitalist who has served as CEO of MySpace and launched Science Inc., which builds and invests in online and mobile businesses such as the Dollar Shave Club.
What else is Larson planning? Recently, The Review talked with her about the 2016-17 campaign and looked ahead. Here's what she had to say:
Q: Why was the Foundation's 2016-17 campaign so successful?
A: The Foundation was able to raise a significant amount because of tremendous support from parents, grandparents, residents and local businesses. Our community values education, which is evident by the outpouring of generous donations made to the Foundation every year.
Additionally, this year we saw a significant increase in corporate-matched donations, up by nearly 50 percent from previous years. Intel and Nike — to name a couple of our largest corporate contributors — encouraged philanthropic giving by offering employees two times the match. For example, Nike tripled an employee's personal donation of $500 with a $1,000 match, giving a total of $1,500 to the Foundation.
Also, we are building up our focus on new families. This year, we hosted several coffees for families who were new to the district at the elementary level. We plan to expand our program next year, looking at ways to welcome families entering the district at the secondary level.
Q: What is the biggest misconception you encountered that had prevented this year's donors from giving in the past?
A: One of the things I had heard was concern for how our taxes are spent by the schools.
What's important to note is that Lake Oswego residents pay more in taxes than our local schools receive in state funding. That's because our taxes are sent to the state, which then redistributes them to every district in Oregon. But before those funds reach Lake Oswego, they go through a weighted formula that factors in socioeconomic needs and geographic limitations. As a result, Lake Oswego schools receive nearly $1,000 less per student than the average district statewide.
That deficit in state funding is why we have the Foundation. The Foundation was created to support our schools' excellent educational opportunities, regardless of financial constraints imposed by state funding.
The other thing we often heard was confusion about our schools' different sources of funding. Parent clubs help pay for educational enrichment tools, equipment and experiences. Bonds are how districts pay for capital expenditures such as building repairs and new infrastructure. The local option levy and Foundation funds go into the operating budget, which pays for things like salaries, utilities and curriculum. But an important note: Foundation funds go solely to hiring and retaining teachers.
Think of it like a three-legged stool (parent clubs; bonds; Foundation, local levy and state funds). We need all three legs of funding to keep our schools steady and strong.
Q: What were some of the challenges that you encountered in your first campaign year, and how did you meet these obstacles as they arose?
A: For me personally ... there's always a big learning curve the first year in a new position, but that's balanced with anticipation, energy and excitement for all that I experienced.
The snow, ice and wind storms definitely created some inopportune obstacles, but we were able to overcome them with resourceful thinking and working double-time whenever possible.
We anticipated the bond measure in May would consume the community's attention, which is why we moved up our campaign marketing by almost a month. We generated significant momentum in the winter, knowing that as soon as everyone got back from spring break, all eyes, ears and energy would be focused on the bond measure and School Board election. The Foundation office kept humming along, but we waited until a few weeks after the election to go back out with our last big ask for donations. That strategy worked.
Q: What might you consider doing differently next year for the 2017-18 campaign?
A: I've learned so much, but I've made a mental note of what I'd do again, what I'd eliminate and what I'd do differently.
Specific plans for next year are still in development. I and the volunteer board of directors work 12 months a year, and summer is a time to plan and organize for the coming school year. What I can say for sure is we're putting a big focus and a lot of renewed energy toward increasing our endowment fund, which has the potential to sustain the district during times of economic highs and lows.
We are also ramping up our business partnerships, since the relationship between our local businesses and stellar schools helps make Lake Oswego one of the most desirable and vibrant communities. And as I mentioned earlier, we are implementing new programs to help welcome new families into the district, including a series of meetings over coffee during the second week in October.