A new breed of booster club emerges as ambitious parent-based organizations take aim at funding major building projects

Geneseo, Ill., rests about 25 miles inland from the shores of the Mississippi River, two-and-a-half hours west of Chicago, in a county known as the "Hog Capital of the World." It has remained little more than a sturdy farming community since it was settled in the early 1800s. But Geneseo, population 6,500, does boast an eager group of parents who joined forces and raised more than $2 million to build and equip a physical education and practice facility at J.D. Darnall High School, which hadn't seen any new athletic facilities since 1964. Back then, the school sponsored eight sports, not the 17 it offers today's 950 students.

Thanks to the fund-raising efforts of the Geneseo School Facility Enhancement Foundation, a small nonprofit organization of parents, the 40,000-square-foot facility is expected to open this summer with three basketball courts, a four-lane track and a 6,500-square-foot weight room. The facility's size ensures that many Darnall teams can now practice there simultaneously.

"We were tired of our kids getting home from practice at 8 p.m., and having them go to practice at 6 a.m., because there weren't enough practice facilities," says Travis Mackey, Darnall's athletic director and the father of four children who have yet to attend the high school. "We did this without taxpayer money and at a time when the unemployment rate was rising. People said, 'Why don't you wait to build this at the right time?' If we did that, there would never be a right time. We wanted to generate change right now."

Change is being generated all over the country, in communities large and small, by parent-run nonprofit groups that are accomplishing goals well beyond those of traditional booster clubs. "I'm beginning to see more and more parents interested in improving the facilities and fields their kids are playing in and on," says Frank Kovaleski, director of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association. "Three years ago, we told our athletic administrators that fund-raising was going to become a much more important process. School districts just can't cut budgets without affecting athletic programs. So it doesn't surprise me that districts don't have the money, and that parents are the ones finding they can raise the money themselves."

And raising money, they are - for everything from new lights and bleachers to multimillion-dollar renovation projects. In fact, some public high schools that find themselves in dire financial straits are now operating more like private high schools, relying solely on donations and other forms of revenue that states won't provide. "That's a very fair comparison," Kovaleski says. "Public schools have the same opportunities as the private schools. They just have to change their mind-set."

High school booster clubs have been around for as long as there have been high school sports, raising money to pay for small projects or team travel by selling apparel, game-program advertising and raffle tickets; organizing end-of-season banquets; or simply promoting goodwill between a school's athletic department and the community. "There was a time when booster clubs were much more prevalent than they are today," Kovaleski says. "But we still have some good booster clubs out there that do some great things."

But they don't raise $2.5 million to renovate a stadium, as the Castro Valley (Calif.) Sports Foundation hopes to do by 2005. Or generate $800,000 to purchase bleachers and other equipment for a new field house, as the members of Ashwaubenon (Wis.) High School's Jaguar Pride group did last year. Or seek $2.2 million in donations to build a new synthetic-turf field and a dome to cover it during the winter months, as the Touchdown Club of Minnetonka (Minn.) High School intends to do. Or recruit attorneys, building contractors and construction crews to donate time, money and skills to complete $350,000 worth of repairs and improvements to Jonas Morris Stadium, home football and soccer venue for two high schools in Cherry Hill, N.J., as the Community Sports Committee and the Cherry Hill High School Football Foundation are doing. Such numbers are well beyond the fund-raising capabilities of the average athletic booster club at an NCAA Division II college, let alone a high school.

The nonprofit groups generating these kinds of dollars have distinct points of origin, take many forms and have at least one major goal in mind. They're usually comprised of parents and grandparents of current or future students at a given school, although alumni and individuals without children have also been known to join such organizations. In most cases, these groups form - almost always with the blessing of school and district administrators - because of frustration with a district's inability (or sometimes, unwillingness) to improve a given athletic facility and because of their own pride in a school, its student-athletes and the community as a whole. "We have a lot of people who thought the practice facility was a good idea for our children," Mackey says. "Somebody suggested we build one, so we went to the district, which said, 'You've got to show us the need.' We told district administrators, 'This is going to impact local kids for the next 50 years.' They were sold."

Sometimes, the process isn't that easy. The Castro Valley Sports Foundation initially struggled to get the local school district on board with the group's proposal to upgrade the football stadium at Castro Valley High School with synthetic turf, a new track, new seats and other amenities, according to foundation president Martin Capron, a youth track coach whose son will be entering the high school this fall. Capron claims the school's facilities, complete with a press box located above one of the field's 30-yard lines, are among the worst in the area.

"A lot of district folks - administrators, coaches, athletic directors - are a bit cynical when it comes to efforts like this," he says. "They've heard promises that are never kept. They are like the guy who got dumped by five girls in a row and then looks at the next girl and says, 'You're pretty, but I'm going to keep my distance.' Whereas, if I was on the receiving end of this, I would be saying, 'Man, that's great. Somebody's actively getting involved in a public school and helping us to not raise taxes or have to pass bonds.' "

The Castro Valley Unified School District now says it supports the foundation, appointing assistant superintendent of business Jerry Macy to work with Capron and the other nine board members. "It's a very exciting, very positive project," Macy recently told the Contra Costa Times.

"I figured that we'd have to raise the money ourselves if we wanted it done. That doesn't bother me. Why should the district give us money when it's got other programs screaming for money." Capron says, adding that the first year of the foundation's efforts yielded about $200,000. "As a new organization, we haven't quite developed the infrastructure of a Rotary Club yet, and we need to do that in the form of formal subcommittees. The hardest money to get is the first couple hundred dollars. Once we get going, we'll gain leverage."

To that end, the foundation has planned a variety of fundraisers this year, including an Earth Day 5K run/walk event scheduled for May 1 and sponsored in conjunction with the Castro Valley Sanitary District. A crab feed ($30 for all you can eat), hosted by the Castro Valley Rotary Club to benefit both the foundation and the Castro Valley Performing Arts Center, took place in late February. All project donors of $100 or more get their name posted on a virtual Wall of Fame, which can be viewed on the foundation's web site (www.cvsfi.org), along with the group's financial statements.

In Cherry Hill, the Community Sports Committee (made up of about 35 parents and grandparents of students in the city's public schools) works hand-in-hand with the Cherry Hill High School Football Foundation (a nonprofit group comprising members of the booster clubs at the city's two high schools, East and West) to accomplish such athletic upgrades as new lights and bleachers for Jonas Morris Stadium, as well as painting the press box. One of the collaborative's most-notable accomplishments was converting a long-abandoned street-hockey court at the far end of Cherry Hill West's stadium grounds into a new practice field for high school soccer teams and youth football leagues.

"You can only increase your budget so much, so typically a lot of these improvement ideas are left by the wayside," says Gail Cohen, assistant to the superintendent of Cherry Hill Public Schools and the district's liaison to both parent groups. "We couldn't fund them. We were trying to please the taxpayers while improving what programs we could."

It took some explaining by district administrators to get parents and other residents to understand that some improvements weren't being made because the district didn't want to increase taxes. But once they understood that, parents responded by forming their own groups to help, Cohen say.

While the Community Sports Committee recommends improvements, as opposed to actually funding them, its members - including plenty of attorneys, contractors and local business owners - donate their time, trade and talent to projects like the replacement of the stadium's lights, which were paid for by the fund-raising efforts of the Cherry Hill High School Football Foundation. "When you bring so many different skills together, you find you can get a lot done gratis," Cohen says.

All of this ambitious activity isn't to say that the schools' traditional booster clubs have disappeared. In fact, Cohen says the clubs recently purchased $8,000 worth of wrestling mats and are more effective than ever in their efforts. "They recognize the challenge under which the district is operating," she says.

So do members of the athletic and band booster clubs at Westside High School in Omaha, Neb. That's why, with the help of the school's alumni association and school district, they are taking on an enterprising $3.8 million fund-raising effort to renovate its four-decade-old stadium in three phases, beginning with a new synthetic surface and an eight-lane track.

"We have never done something on this scale," says Bob Reznicek, assistant principal and athletic director at Westside and past president of the NIAAA. "We have some people who are still reluctant to get involved, and we have others who want to go full speed ahead. But one of the concerns we have is whether we will burn people out by asking them to do too much. I won't have an answer to that for awhile. All I know is that this is way too big of a project for just six or eight people to undertake."

When all is said and done, Reznicek predicts that up to 400 people, in addition to countless donors, will have had a hand in seeing the project to fruition. Westside's alumni association is in the midst of soliciting donations from former student-athletes and band members, and a district-wide spring carnival is slated for next month in the school's parking lot. Plans call for making the carnival an annual event and eventually moving it into the stadium to show off the results of the booster clubs' fund-raising efforts. Selling 400 reserved seats to games played in the 6,000seat stadium is another idea, one that Reznicek says is still in development. "Initially, I think this project stunned our booster club members, because we asked them to think long-term: What can we do to generate money that won't be like usual fund-raisers?" he says.

For schools in New York City's five boroughs, which haven't been able to sponsor usual fund-raisers for years - The New York Times reports that up until recently, most athletic facilities at the city's 1,200 elementary, middle and high schools hadn't been upgraded for more than a quarter-century - it took more than just enthusiastic parents to effect change.

Enter Take the Field, a public-private partnership founded by three well-known and successful area businessmen (including Preston Robert Tisch, chairman and co-chief executive officer of the NFL's New York Giants), got involved back in 2000. By the end of this year, organization officials expect to have wrapped up $135 million worth of renovations to 50 high school stadiums, baseball/softball complexes and other athletic facilities.

"You would look at one of those fields and say, 'This is not an athletic field; it's a vacant piece of property,' " says Take the Field executive director Mary Musca. The "gut renovations," as Musca calls the projects, were made possible largely through an agreement between the Giuliani and Bloomberg Administrations, the five borough presidents and the New York City Council, which generated $3 of city funding for every $1 of private-sector money raised during a three-year period. In addition to corporate contributors, much of the money was donated "by individuals who remember their days in New York public schools fondly and want to give back," Musca says.

Take the Field's approach to these renovations is much like its corporate dealings. "The way we do business is with the school as our client - the athletic directors, students, parents and staff," Musca says. "They need to let us know what their needs are. Then we bid the projects and we build them. The model is effective. The private sector brings dollars and people to the public sector to work toward a common goal."

Despite the various approaches to moving beyond the realm of traditional booster clubs to generate major athletic improvements, each group should have close contact with local school district officials and, in some cases, the school's athletic director. "Parents just can't go and do these things without the district's involvement," says Kovaleski, who suggests that the superintendent or an assistant to the superintendent, as well as a business manager, serve as a liaison between the organization and the school. Athletic directors often remain involved but some prefer to defer to the district. The Castro Valley Sports Foundation has little contact with the school's athletic director, Capron says, while Ashwaubenon High School's athletic director remained instrumental in the initial success of Jaguar Pride.

The athletic director and district administrators should remind parent organizations of Title IX requirements, inform them of their state's particular fund-raising regulations and lay down a set of guidelines for how the organization will represent the school and the district, Kovaleski says. For example, how much pressure should members put on donors? How will control be divided between the organization and the district when it comes time to spend the money raised? "Some school districts may be much more restrictive than others in what they do, but the local board of education has to feel comfortable with what it's getting involved in," Kovaleski says.

Simple lack of oversight can lead to trouble. The Whitehall (Pa.) High School's Zephyr Football Club reported the disappearance of about $20,000 from club coffers earlier this year. Administrators at Oakland Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, meanwhile, were reeling after an ad for a company that provides male and female exotic dancers for everything from sports parties to "divorce parties" slipped into the school's girls' basketball program - the type of publication typically generated through the efforts of booster clubs or other parent organizations. Says Kovaleski, "If there weren't a screening policy in place for people joining these groups, I think I would develop one."

While some organizations dissolve after accomplishing their primary tasks (Jaguar Pride, for example, has no plans to conquer another project right now, district officials say), others find more work. Still on the Cherry Hill Community Sports Committee's to-do list, developed in conjunction with school administrators and athletic directors, are improvements to the track at Jonas Morris Stadium and construction of a brand-new stadium for East High. The committee is also striving to make crew a club sport, as well as looking into teaming with a local lacrosse league that would cover the costs of a start-up high school program. The Castro Valley Sports Foundation has major plans, too. Proposals are posted in a poll on the organization's web site and include such community projects as a skate park, a swimming pool and a BMX track.

The foundation already completed one unexpected project when a stadium-funding solicitation to a nearby 24 Hour Fitness facility netted the high school not the financial contribution it sought, but about $8,000 worth of used strength equipment.

Yes, groups like the ones in Castro Valley, Cherry Hill and Geneseo have high ambitions. But who better to accomplish improvements for the well-being of children than their dedicated parents. While some of these initiatives inevitably get reconfigured or even scaled down over time, Kovaleski says he knows of no initiatives that have failed outright. "Parents want better facilities, because they travel to other schools and see how they could make improvements back home," he says. "I think that the people who are going to take on these projects are probably the people who can get them done."