For Ramón González, principal of the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology (M.S.223) in the South Bronx, excellence is a hustle: “Food, childcare, giving out things, trying to have activities that keep them engaged” is how González says he gets about 20 to 30 parents to come out to the average Parents’ Association meeting. With a lot on their plates, including notoriously poor health in the area, he says, he needs to entice them.

The parents’ association at his school raised between $3,000 and $4,000 last year, which was used toward graduation, prom, and school dances. Parents chip in for the drinks and flowers, and the school provides a DJ. The rest is in his hands.

“We don’t have silent auctions and all those things. That’s just not our population,” González says.

It’s a very different story at the William Penn School (P.S.321), located in pricey Park Slope, Brooklyn. Its Parent-Teacher Association brings in approximately $500,000 in annual revenue, according to PTA Co-President Jill Mont. Its biggest fundraisers, a spring dance and an auction, collected between $75,000 and $80,000 apiece last year, and an annual appeal rakes in about $100,000—combining for about 60 times M.S.223’s annual PA budget.

“Somebody might donate a weekend house in the Poconos, and that might be a $500 bid,” Mont says.

In the midst of a widening school budget crisis—the Department of Education (DOE) projects 8,500 teacher layoffs this year if state cuts go through, and the city only avoided 14,000 more last year thanks to federal stimulus dollars, which expire next year—parent fundraising is increasingly helping to fill the gap. At schools across the city, parent dollars are used to help schools meet state arts mandates and provide necessary classroom supplies and personnel.

Nobody knows exactly how much money PAs pour in to city schools. PAs must file financial statements with their schools and district offices, but the DOE does not track PA spending citywide or even by district, according to District 10’s Community Education Council President Marvin Shelton, who says the information was provided to him by the DOE’s Office for Family Engagement and Advocacy. (The DOE would not comment for this story.)

One thing, however, is clear. While some parent groups have the muscle to carry a piece of the city’s burden, others barely make a dent—contributing to a distinctive “separate but equal” education system within the five boroughs.

“There is, in fact, a large difference in the ability of parents’ groups in different schools to raise money, and that has a profound effect on what the schools are able to offer,” says Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children, a nonprofit that supports the rights of New York City students, especially students of color and those from low-income backgrounds.

Take the Upper East Side’s Lillie Devereaux Blake School (P.S.6). There, only 6 percent of students come from families with low enough incomes to qualify for free lunch, and more than 70 percent of students are white. The P.S.6 PA’s 2007 tax filings show it finished with $775,486 in revenue that year, and used the vast majority to cover “teaching expenses, etc., not provided for in Board of Education Budget.” (According to a September 2, 2009, agreement between the United Federation of Teachers and the DOE, schools can hire what are called Parent Association Teacher Aides as temporary employees so long as they do not “replace, substitute for, or supplant in any way any UFT-represented employee.”) Similarly, parents at P.S.41 on West 11th Street claimed $503,794 in total revenue in 2007 and contributed more than half of it to what it called “teachers, supervision, and additional information for students that is not ordinarily provided via curriculum.”

The Bronx New School (P.S.51) on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx, where 34 percent of students are black and 53 percent Hispanic—and 57 percent qualify for free lunch—couldn’t compete. There, despite an active parents’ association, the group’s approximately $5,000 in revenue last year didn’t pay a single salary.

“PAs and PTAs can’t hire teachers, and we can’t build buildings,” notes Mont. But PA money can be used to hire other staff or purchase supplies—freeing up a school’s regular budget for other purposes. When New York State Supreme Court Judge Carol Edmead briefly granted a temporary restraining order last October delaying more than 500 school aides from being laid off citywide, she cited the fact that the Mosaic Preparatory Academy (P.S.375) in East Harlem, where almost 90 percent of students were at or below the poverty line, was set to lose all its school aides, while P.S.6 on Madison Avenue had hired 17 teacher aides (all made possible by PA money, according to Zita Allen, communications director for DC 37, the union that represents teacher aides).

Arts programs are another frequent target of parent fundraising. Ever since 2007, when Mayor Bloomberg took the annual $65 per student Project Arts budget line created by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and folded it into overall school budgets, principals have been left to decide for themselves how much to spend on the arts. Fewer resources, coupled with the city’s increased focus on English, math, and science instruction in its school progress reports, means art is often forsaken, says Richard Kessler, who works with PAs to bring art into schools as the executive director of the Center for Arts Education.

“There’s a lot of schools that depend very, very heavily on subsidies coming from parents,” Kessler says.

Only 12 percent of city elementary schools and 63 percent of middle schools report meeting state mandates for arts education, according to the DOE’s own 2008–2009 Annual Arts in Schools Report. It calculates that parent funding represented 27 percent of non-DOE arts education funding for elementary schools during that school year, 13 percent in middle schools, and 8 percent in high schools, rivaling only the total amount contributed by cultural organizations.

The 2008–2009 Arts in Schools Report for P.S.321 shows that, thanks in part to PTA funding, the school had one full-time certified dance teacher, three music, and one visual arts, as well as one part-time certified music teacher and one for visual arts that year. The PTA paid for a dance education company, Together in Dance, as well as for a drama program for fourth-graders and a computer consultant, according to Mont.

The same report for P.S.51 shows it has only one full-time certified music teacher, and no direct support from the PA. With only a fraction of P.S.321’s budget, the P.S.51 Parents’ Association was limited to buying art supplies for existing teachers, according to Parent Coordinator Helena Ortiz.

“As more and more money has been cut from special programs like art and music and really concentrated in English and math, it’s often been the job of parents’ associations to make up the difference, and in schools where parents’ associations can’t make up the difference, they might go lacking,” says Sweet.

Despite the disadvantages that schools in low-income neighborhoods face, “There are some schools that are really savvy in raising money,” says Kessler. González’s school in the South Bronx is one example: His school boasts a robust after-school program and two science labs. He has facilitated trips for students to see Alvin Ailey and In the Heights, making use of hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants raised through his own ingenuity.

Last year, a $300,000 grant from the Bronx borough president provided funds for a new library where none existed before. The school got a grant totaling about $400,000 to build a science lab, but González thought it would be wiser to build two, each at half the cost. So far this year, the school has been awarded $2,000 by the Bronx Council of the Arts for integrating Bronx artists into the curriculum, and it recently received a $50,000 technology grant from the state by linking up with a nearby school that qualified for the grant.

González’s expertise has led him to hold seminars on creative fundraising for schools through Kessler’s Center for Arts Education, teaching principals how to apply for grants, develop relationships with politicians, and assign staff members to write proposals.

Yet even if more principals get better at fundraising, grant writing is no panacea. Kessler notes that the total of González’s grants still cannot compare to the highest-yielding parents’ associations. Furthermore, strong PAs also help schools apply for grants, compounding their effectiveness.

“There’s a lot of schools where the PTAs are barely breathing,” Kessler says. The No Child Left Behind Act gears additional money toward schools with needy students, but he says the funds fall short. He’d prefer to bring back dedicated arts money, weighting it toward schools with a scarcity of art teachers that lack PAs with powerful fundraising ability. That way, though some kids would still get more than others, schools would start off on an equal footing.

“I don’t think there are any easy answers,” says Leonie Haimson, executive director of the parent advocacy group Class Size Matters. While some educational critics have called for a freeze on parent fundraising, she believes that parents are being forced into a corner. If the DOE more wisely used resources like its share of state Campaign for Fiscal Equity money, she says, parents wouldn’t feel the need to pick up the slack.

“I really believe there would be less of an impetus for PTAs to raise all this money if they felt the schools were adequately funded,” says Haimson.