Lakeland Education Foundation Is a Well-Oiled, Grant Funding Machine

Sisters-in-law Denise and Diane Kness at Lakeland Education Foundation’s annual Casino Night and Dinner Dance. Denise is a past president and Diane is the current president of the foundation. Credits: Lakeland Central School District

YORKTOWN, N.Y. – Smart Boards, iPads and 3-D printers—these are only some of what might not exist in the Lakeland Central School District without two-plus decades of continuous contributions from the Lakeland Education Foundation.

The all-volunteer foundation, started in 1994, supports Lakeland schools by raising funds for specific student and teacher-initiated projects that enrich the educational experience and are not funded by the district’s budget. Its most recent donations were awarded on April 20, when a series of grants totaling $45,092 put the organization over the $1 million mark in grants and scholarships awarded.

“We had $120,000 in grants submitted to us [this year],” said foundation President Diane Kness. “Historically, we have anywhere from $75,000 to $130,000 in grants submitted. We’re not that good yet that we could fund all of that in one grant cycle. We’re working on it and hopefully one day we’ll get there. There are so many great ideas. We’ve got outstanding grants.”

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While the Lakeland Education Foundation is now a well-oiled grant-funding machine turning up about $50,000 in grants per year, it wasn’t always that way. The brainchild of only a handful of district staff and community members, the foundation began modestly, said Communications Director James Van Develde.

“It really was the superintendent [Bob Siebert] and a couple of community members,” Van Develde said. “They got together and said the foundation is something Lakeland really needs. There were people who said it will never work. ‘You’ll never get people to do that. It’s too much work.’”

Diane Kness said about half of the $1 million granted was done in the past seven or eight years. The foundation’s staple event has always been its annual dinner dance and auction; however, the Board of Directors decided additional, more accessible events would raise awareness and increase funding, said former president Denise Kness, sister-in-law of the current president.

“We felt we needed to expand the events in all different price points so that everyone had an opportunity to participate, because traditionally it was a dinner dance and auction, which was in the $90 to $100 range,” Denise Kness said.

So, the board created a Bowling for Bucks event, a Ladies Lunch Boutique, a 5K, and a Family Fun Day. With these events, Denise Kness said, it helped the foundation build its attendance for its primary dinner dance fundraiser.

“Another thing we changed was honoring people who truly were instrumental in supporting the foundation,” Denise Kness said. “And that’s what filled the room and we were able to raise each year from $40,000 to $50,000.”

The foundation also improved at showing district parents how their money was being spent. Once they saw that, Denise Kness said, they became even bigger supporters.

District staff (and occasionally, students) fill out grant application forms and submit them to the foundation. Its 17-member Board of Directors then meets and selects grants to fund. Grants, however, are only funded with the support of the Lakeland Central School District, said Diane Kness.

“We’re not going to fund something that the district wouldn’t approve,” she said.

She said the foundation typically receives between $75,000 and $130,000 worth of requests per year, but is only able to fund about $45,000 to $50,000. For worthwhile grants that don’t make the cut, the foundation encourages the person to resubmit the following year.

While $50,000 may seem like a drop in the bucket in the school district’s $161 million budget, the programs being funded through the foundation are things that might not ever be funded in the district’s regular budget. In some ways, Kness said, the grants act as pilot programs. If something works well, she said, the district will incorporate it into its regular budget. A recent example are new water fountains that also serve as water bottle filling stations.

“It worked so well, that the high school is now doing that and the district is now looking to do those in all of the buildings,” Diane Kness said. “If a grant really works, then the district looks to fund it for the remaining schools.”

That was also the case for Smart Boards, which are now in just about every classroom in the district.

“Once that picked up steam, the district went and funded it throughout,” Diane Kness said. “We’ve provided weather stations, almost everything you can possibly think of. It is stuff the district wouldn’t normally have in their budget.”

Diane Kness took over the presidency from her sister-in-law, who was first elected to the Board of Education in 2014. Denise Kness is one of three former foundation board members who currently serve on the school board, along with Michael Daly and Rachelle Nardelli.

Van Develde, who worked for the school district when the foundation began 23 years ago, said it faced a critical turning point when the initial founders decided to step down. To his pleasant surprise, the foundation has continued to flourish under a completely new group of volunteers who stepped up to lead.

“You had that changeover, and you always hope it will continue and it has,” he said. “The people have stepped up and it’s such a strong group of people now that are continuing it, and it’s all volunteer. They don’t get anything out of it.”

He said the Lakeland Education Foundation is one of the purest nonprofit organizations running. The foundation has a singular purpose and its volunteers take no money.

“Every dollar goes toward providing grants for Lakeland,” Van Develde said.

Diane Kness, also an elementary school PTA president, said the Lakeland Education Foundation has tremendous parent support. She also praised Unfunded Mandate, a band comprising of district administrators and staff. Their performances have raised nearly $30,000 for the foundation over the years, she said.

“Our events have become more well-attended and I think people are starting to recognize what the foundation is and how we help,” Diane Kness said. “So, the word’s out there, because people are coming out to support us.”

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