LAND O'LAKES — The Pasco Education Foundation this spring has distributed $106,000 in scholarships to high school seniors, besting its 2011 record by almost $20,000.
It reached this level despite a still struggling economy that recently led the foundation to charge donors $50 to manage the scholarship funds.
A couple of organizations stopped contributing because they did not want to pay the fee. But others starting up new scholarships said they found the services provided in support of their contributions well worth the added amount.
"We just feel it's a very fair fee schedule we have established," foundation executive director Chip Wichmanowski said.
For years, the foundation managed scholarship funds without cost. It was able to do so because, in 1999, the school district agreed to support the group as a department, covering its salaries and overhead.
As the school district's revenue began falling short of expenses in recent years, though, the School Board told foundation leaders they would have to go it alone. The district's financial support of the foundation fell from $169,181 in 2010 to $32,782 this year — enough for one secretary, phones, copies and office space.
"We obviously had to cover our costs as an organization when we started losing our funding from the School Board," Wichmanowski said.
Charlie Skelton, executive director of Richey Suncoast Theatre, got the foundation's letter announcing the new fee. His organization annually awards 10 student scholarships of $250 to $500 each.
He figured that the $50 per scholarship fee simply would take away from the students.
"For years I've been saying, '100 percent of the money goes to scholarships.' … If we can give it to the kids, that's what we're here for," Skelton said. "We don't go through the foundation anymore. We do it ourselves."
The West Pasco Bar Association also balked at the fee and withdrew, Wichmanowski said.
For the most part, though, complaints have been few and far between, foundation board members reported.
"I never have had the first person say anything to me about being concerned about it or not wanting to do a scholarship," said Allen Altman, the School Board's representative to the foundation. "I don't think it's an issue."
In fact, some organizations starting new scholarships found the fee well worth it.
One was the Woodland Elementary School student council. Those children worked to collect $300 for a scholarship to go to a former Woodland student who is graduating from Zephyrhills High School.
Principal Kim Poe said she was initially wary of paying extra, because of all the hard work her students did to raise the money. But she quickly came to see it as a good investment.
"They managed the entire thing," Poe said. "It took some of that first time, not knowing what we were really doing, out of the picture."
For the $50, the foundation helps develop the scholarship criteria and application, advertises the scholarship, reviews applicants, helps select winners, processes all the paperwork and distributes the funds, among other things.
"I definitely would use them again," Poe said.
The School Board this year considered cutting its funding of the foundation by another $16,000 or so, but did not pull the trigger. That idea remains among the possibilities as the board works to balance its 2012-13 budget.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.