By Jody Steinberg

When Cross Keys High School cross-country runners needed shoes, Big Peach Running Co. contributed 80 pairs.

By doing so, Big Peach became the newest corporate partner of the Cross Keys Foundation, a nonprofit established this year to advocate and build community support for Cross Keys and the cluster of DeKalb schools feeding into the Brookhaven high school.

The Cross Keys nonprofit represents something relatively new in school finance: a nonprofit foundation funneling corporate and community support to an individual public school. As declining revenues have forced local school districts to cut budgets year after year, parents and school boosters have entered the non-profit world to find new sources of support for their schools.

Dozens of local school foundations have sprung up in recent years to find cash to supplement school programs and augment PTAs as the primary force behind school fundraising. While gift-wrap and bake sales may still rule as school fundraisers, foundations are procuring grants and business sponsorships, tapping community resources and challenging parents to give more every year.

“Foundations are the new black,” says DeKalb County Public Schools Foundation director Sara Neely.

Consider the new foundation serving Ashford Park Elementary School. The school sits at the heart of a sprawling residential neighborhood with a growing population of elementary-aged students and parents ready to get involved. Parent Sheila Lantier started pulling together a foundation for the school almost a year ago, before her children even were enrolled.

“I just wanted to get involved and get vested in the schools,” she said. “If we have a stellar elementary school, it trickles over into the neighborhood in many ways. The community is happy … there are so many different ways it’s beneficial.”

As independent 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organizations, foundations can raise money for anything from extra classroom materials to uniforms for a new football team.

At Sarah Smith Elementary School in Atlanta, for instance, the foundation – which budgets revenues of $170,000 from donations from parents, grandparents, businesses and a bi-annual auction that took in $125,000 last year — gives every teacher a $300 classroom allowance, supports teacher enrichment and funds programs such as Junior Great Books. “We try to provide funding for things that APS cannot afford, to provide a better teaching environment for the children,” foundation chair Nicole Bogard said.

The Sandy Springs Charter Middle School Foundation, on the other hand, raises money for athletics. When the Sandy Springs Charter Middle School Stallions took the football field and won their first game, the stands were filled with supporters of the school’s new foundation, which enabled the school to hire a coach, start the team and accept a grant from the Northside Athletes’ Foundation.

The Sandy Springs Middle foundation also raises money for the arts, chairwoman Mindy Zatto said. About half of last year’s $25,000 budget went to establish softball and football teams – the other half to purchase a new sound system for the school’s performing arts program. SSCMS feeds into North Springs High School, a performing arts magnet school also known for its sports programs,” says Zatto. Feeder sports programs are important, so “the kids are starting out in ninth grade knowing how to play.”

Some question whether foundations will pull donations away from traditional school fund-raising programs, such as PTAs. But often, individual school foundations evolve from strong PTAs.

“We are so successful and growing and have so much potential, but can’t do it within the guidelines of the PTA,” says Allison Cochran of DeKalb’s Montgomery Elementary. “The PTA works with more one-year needs, and the foundation will be long-term, so the PTA can focus on what PTAs really need to do: enhance the educational environment of the school and be an advocate for parents, teachers and students.”

Montgomery decided this month to start its foundation, the Mustang Fund, because PTA governance became too restrictive to allow long-term fundraising, explains Cochran, co-chair of last year’s $42,000 auction and president of the new foundation. PTAs cannot carry budgets over from year to year or save for larger capital improvements.

Plus, foundations make it easier for corporations or grant-giving non-profits to see where their money goes. As a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization, a foundation is run by an advisory board, donations are tax-deductible and large gifts are disclosed publicly in annual tax reports.

“Everyone wants paper trails” of their donations, Neely said, and foundations give corporations and grant-making organizations ways to channel grants to schools through governed nonprofits.

But setting up a local foundation can be costly and time consuming – as is the annual reporting and tax filing. Although many parents can donate their expertise in legal and accounting work to operate a foundation, some groups don’t want to invest the resources to start a foundation.