TAMPA — Imagine getting $15 in your mailbox with just one catch: It must be donated to a local classroom.
Something like that is happening in the Hillsborough County school district, which has been urging families to take advantage of a donation by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to jump-start local giving.
The district has sent out gift cards and automated calls urging families to choose a project at DonorsChoose.org/Hillsborough 2011, where teachers have registered projects seeking everything from beanbag chairs and computers to sports equipment.
Every card that gets redeemed pulls down a bit of Gates funding, with more coming in from free gift cards at local Starbucks and Best Buy outlets. So far nearly $500,000 has been raised for about 1,200 projects, said district spokesman Stephen Hegarty.
"They've never had anyone be quite as aggressive as we've been," he said, describing Hillsborough's publicity campaign.
Sarah Caldwell, a prekindergarten instructor at Sulphur Springs Elementary School, said she learned about DonorsChoose.org while teaching in North Carolina. Since 2008, she's raised $3,692 to buy books, educational games and other supplies.
"It gives a different experience to my kids," she said, describing an aquarium project that got funded. "They have fish in the classroom now that they're able to take care of and watch grow."
Music teacher Ken Gabel at DeSoto Elementary is still looking for $521 to pay for hand drums and tambourines so every student can play an instrument during class. His "Drumming Dragons" project is one of 1,300 Hillsborough proposals still vying for attention.
"Smaller projects like mine, or smaller schools, they kind of get buried in the masses," said Gabel, who goes by "Mr. G" on the web site.
DonorsChoose.org has been around for a decade, but it's getting a burst of attention this year. The Gates Foundation pledged $1 million to spur local giving in three districts that have received major education grants, including Hillsborough, said spokeswoman Deborah Veney Robinson.
"That's why our numbers are so big here," said Hegarty.
The district's gift cards can be redeemed through April 1, while cards from Starbucks and Best Buy can be used through April 15, he said.
Reach Tom Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.