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Lunch with Mimi: Chris Buchignani discusses the mission of the State College Area School District Education Foundation

on April 30, 2020 12:35 PM

Founded in the fall of 2015, the State College Area School District Education Foundation is a nonprofit organization with the mission to enhance the educational experience of the 7,000 students enrolled in the district by providing the tools, resources, opportunities, and programming needed to succeed in the classroom, and in life after graduation.

 

The foundation supplements the district’s yearly budget to fund innovative learning opportunities, including co-curricular and extracurricular activities for all students, as well as to support the development costs for new curricular programs.

As president of the SCASD Education Foundation, Chris Buchignani presides over the board of directors’ meetings and represents the foundation in its public and district leadership.

Born and raised in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, Buchignani’s parents were both public school teachers and many other members of his family also worked in education. Growing up, he had a deep respect and appreciation for the importance of education, and his work with the SCASDEF is a reflection of his personal commitment to making a difference in this community.  

Buchignani moved to State College in 1997 to attend Penn State, where he earned a degree in journalism in 2002. He is a partner in two local companies, Blue White Media Inc. and Rock Lion Goods, does independent market research consulting, and is co-host of The Obligatory PSU Pregame Show and Podcast.  

He is also the founding president of The Nittany Valley Society, which recently merged operations with Mount Nittany Conservancy.

Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith spoke with Buchignani about how the SCASDEF was established, how funds are distributed, and how the organization is helping those in need in our community. Because of social distancing measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the interview was conducted remotely.

 

Mimi: Welcome, Chris. We're in a new era. But I'm sure our readers will enjoy learning about the State College Area School District Education Foundation. Let's talk about things that are on the upside in a period of great concern for all of us. It is kind of prophetic that we're talking about a subject to help others in the future. Start me out with a brief description of how this particular foundation began at the school district, and what is your mission?

Chris: I'll start with the mission, which is broadly to raise funds through a variety of sources that can be spent directly to support and enrich the educational mission of the State College School District, K-12, largely at the direction of the district’s faculty and administration. This is not a model that is unique to State College or was it novel at the time the foundation began.

Mimi: When did it begin?

Chris: The founding board of directors, of which I was a part, first met in late summer, early fall of 2016. It was chartered before that, and the decision to create the foundation had happened in the preceding years. The model of a public school district being supported by an accompanying 501(c)(3) foundation had already been in practice all across Pennsylvania; there are over 200 school districts now that have educational foundations. The decision was made that this would be a good model to adopt in allowing the community and other sources of potential funds to be contributed in support of the growth and enrichment of education in the school district. It is also a way for the school district to be able to apply for and receive [Educational Improvement Tax Credit] funding, which requires a separate 501(c)(3) that is not directly connected to the school district.

Mimi: Who determines the use of the funds?

Chris: The way it works is that our foundation board of directors – which is drawn from volunteers from across the community, including several former faculty members, district employees, and members of the school board – oversees the foundation. But the guidance on how the funds are spent comes from school district leadership.

Mimi: With the approval of the board of the foundation?

Chris: Correct. But to be clear, it's a very close working relationship.

Mimi: What are the key things that you've done that you're most proud of?

Chris: Well, there's been a lot we've done that I'm proud of. First of all, I think the task of building something like this foundation from scratch, essentially being in startup mode, was a really challenging one. And I'm very proud of the group of people we were able to assemble on a board of directors, with assistance from our executive director, Paul Olivett, and great cooperation and support from district administration, to get this up off the ground.

In terms of things we've raised money for, I think I am most proud of the recipient of our Maroon & Gray Dinner fundraising last year, which was the establishment of our Mental Health Matters Fund. In selecting the annual recipient of donation money from that dinner, we hear a lot back from the district about where the needs are. And so, going into last year, we got a presentation from Jeanne Knouse, the lead of the district's mental health support team. She presented some pretty sobering statistics that were eye-opening for me just in terms of the need for mental health support throughout State College and throughout the school district. So, being able to be proactive in addressing those needs, and as far as I'm aware, to be one of the first school district foundations in the commonwealth to have done so, is probably the thing I'm most proud of.

Mimi: Is that a grant to a group that's now functioning?

Chris: The way that works is there's a pre-existing mental health support team for the school district. And what we were able to do was raise funds that would be part of a spend-down fund that will be replenished as part of an ongoing fundraising program now. We seeded it with $50,000 of startup money that is available to that team to close the gap and help address needs that they see throughout the district, where the district budget is not able to come in and help out. One example would be additional counseling for at-risk students who need it, students who don't have access to health insurance that can pay for it, and where the district is not able to provide funding. And that's just one of many uses that fund supports with guidance from the mental health team employed by the district.

Mimi: Do you have any tangible data of its performance?

Chris: In general, we try to be pretty proactive in following up on how our grant programs and the things we've allocated money for are performing over the long-term. But that fund hasn't been in the field long enough for us to have much in the way of that data yet. But philosophically, that's something that's really important to me, not just really rigorously vetting the application for money, but then following up on how it was spent and assessing the success rate of the programs we fund.

Mimi: Looking to the future, do you see that as something that will grow based on your overall mission?

Chris: For sure. Going back to the startup point I made, since the founding of the foundation as it commenced fundraising activities a little less than five years ago, to December 31, 2019, the foundation had raised just under $1.2 million in funds contributed and pledged across all of our different programming efforts. I'm very proud of that because, again, all of that was being done from scratch and built for the first time. I hope it'll be a strong foundation that we’ll build on going forward and that other community members who join the board long after I'm gone will inherit something that I hope will raise a lot more to support all the needs that exist in the school district, and there are plenty of them.

Mimi: Are you granting the principal of these funds or just the income?

Chris: These are spend-down funds; these are not endowed funds. The money that comes into the foundation flows directly to the district.

Mimi: That probably is the difference between this foundation and the funds that people have set up in the Centre Foundation. Is that correct?

Chris: Yes. I would identify that as the primary difference. And another distinction is that the majority, not all of it, but certainly the majority of the funds that are administered to the Centre Foundation connected with the school district are largely scholarship endowments. So, they go to support State High students as they go on to college. Whereas all of the funds that go through the school district foundation, go directly to support K-12 educational programs within the district. So, it supports students while they're in school.

Mimi: It comes to my mind that there may be students in the State College Area School District that need emergency funds in these times of horror. Has that come to anyone's mind?

Chris: It has indeed. In fact, I think we've got a pretty good story to tell. You asked about things I'm proud of; I would have to add this to the list as well. A couple weeks ago, when it became clear that the school shutdown was going to extend over a period of several weeks, we very quickly moved to work with the district’s administration and mental health team to identify that those sorts of needs were going to be there. We sent out a fundraising solicitation to our network of donors via email. And as of the time we're recording this here on March 31, we've raised almost $20,000 in less than two weeks. (Editor’s note: As of mid-April, more than $73,000 had been raised.) That money is going directly into our Mental Health Matters Fund. And it's already starting to be dispersed into the community.

So, what the mental health team is doing with support from the administration is creating an avenue where people who really just need to address basic needs that are being impacted by the school shutdown – anything from the cost of medication, food, transportation needs, childcare, all of those things – they can communicate those needs to the district, they're assessed, and then we're helping facilitate community financial support to address them.

Mimi: Shifting off to you, the person, a little bit. You are an interesting young man. You obviously have a keen interest in sports. A lot of your public service and work service has to do with that interest in sports, from the Spikes to Memorial Field, and not too many people get a chance to do exactly what they love to do and measure their impact. How did you get on that track?

Chris: Well, there are trade-offs to everything, certainly. I think you've got to be wired a certain way to be self-employed or to be entrepreneurial. I always say that there are advantages and headaches that come along with any form of employment; you've just got to decide which set of each you're willing to tolerate. I have been very fortunate in my opportunities and my associations. I'm very happy to live in a place that I love, close to a university that I hold very dear to my heart, have a great family here, and to be able to put down roots to do some things that, I think, inform, entertain, or help people in that place.

Mimi: I'm proud of you, and there are lots of us who feel the same way. You're proud of helping people, including young people with mental health issues. You're proud of the work you've achieved for the new stadium. What other kinds of grants have you made?

Chris: One of the other big-ticket items was the recipient of our first Maroon & Gray fundraising dinner, the band uniforms. I know, just from having spoken at length with the band director in the run-up to that, some of the uniforms that the marching band was using were almost 25 years old. So, they were definitely in need of being replaced. They are not cheap. What we were able to do with the money that we raised was to help accelerate the process of buying replacement uniforms for the entire marching band. That was a pretty big undertaking. So, I thought that was a really cool way to start off Maroon & Gray fundraising.

Just to speak a little bit more about Maroon & Gray, I think that's representative of another great thing about having an educational foundation here in State College. Number one, of course, is providing financial support to enrich education in the school district, because we've had a great school district here and making it better is a really worthy enterprise. I talked about what we did in response to the COVID-19 shutdown. So, having a mechanism in place to be nimble and responsive to needs that come up on the fly is certainly helpful as well.

Mimi: What didn’t I ask you that I should have?

Chris: A question we get a lot is why the district needs a foundation to support it when people already pay their taxes. Certainly, the one drawback to working through endowed funds is that the dollars don't go directly where they're needed. It's been really advantageous, given the scope of the school district’s operation and the number of different needs, to be able to have a group that is exclusively focused on working directly with the administration to understand what those are, and help support ways to get the money directly to where it's needed most as quickly and in as large amounts as possible.

Mimi: We’re in truly troubled times.

Chris: For sure. And I know it's been all hands on deck for the school district. So, in terms of establishing what our long-term vision and planning is going to look like, I think that's still an internal process on our end, that now may not be a more public conversation for who knows, maybe 12 months or more, depending on the fallout from all of this craziness.

Mimi: It's a pleasure to know more about your mission and to sense your vigor, enthusiasm, and spirit for the mission. Obviously, you are personally driven for the things you love and care for: family, community, schooling, education. And my hat's off to you, and I wish you the best in your endeavors.

Chris: One last point I want to make to speak to your point about passion animating the things I really care about. Both of my parents were public school teachers. So, I have a really deep personal appreciation for the value of public education as an enterprise, and specifically how blessed we are here in State College to have such a great school district. So, yeah, this is absolutely a very personal thing for me on multiple levels.

Mimi: Well, thank you. It shows, and I hope your enthusiasm bubbles over as we get out of this rut.

Chris: Thank you for your time, Mimi. I appreciate it.

 

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