In times of recession or economic downturn, public schools face almost certain budget cuts. At Centennial Middle School—a School of Innovation in Montrose, CO—Principal Joe Simo has lost 60 percent of his school’s operating budget. Over the last 10 years, Centennial Middle School (CMS) has faced cuts close to $8 million per year—a tough road in a school where 62 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Taking Steps to Secure Funds

How do administrators find help in times of dire financial need? They get creative. As one of the first steps to managing the building on a shoestring budget, CMS became an Innovation School in 2014. The Innovation Schools Act for Colorado provides a pathway for schools and districts to obtain greater individual school autonomy and managerial flexibility in order to implement diverse approaches to learning. The act also gives schools greater control over matters such as educational programming, personnel selection and evaluation, calendars and scheduling, and budgeting. Financially, it allows schools to apply for funding grants and cost waivers.

But this change in designation wasn’t enough to fully fund the school budget. So, Simo looked for other outlets—which wasn’t easy, as he considers all of his faculty and staff to be “super-frugal.” Simo cut unnecessary purchases where he could in the operating budget. He cut the maintenance budget and even has to monitor the number of copies his teachers can make each month. One area in which he refuses to slash the budget is his teachers’ salaries. Their school’s mission—“Within a challenging and joyful learning environment where relationships come first, Centennial Middle School will leverage quality teaching, character education, and a rigorous curriculum to inspire a lifetime of learning”—hinges on meaningful relationships that drive student growth. With that, he says, “You can’t cut good teachers.” Technology has helped a bit to ease some of the financial pain—students turn in papers electronically, and all communication is done via technology. But teachers still need supplies for their classrooms. So, Simo encouraged his teachers to utilize DonorsChoose.

How It Works

DonorsChoose ( is an online crowdfunding source. Most fundraising for schools involves just the students, their parents, relatives, and friends—the fundraising effort rarely moves outside the community. In a school where so many children receive free and reduced-price lunch, trying to get more money out of parents is like trying to get blood from a stone. At DonorsChoose, 74 percent of the funding for classroom projects comes from outside the school’s social network. The pool of donors comes from all over the world, including large, multimillion-dollar companies such as Google, Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc., the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Staples Inc. DonorsChoose partners with large corporations to either fund or match donations for projects. CEO Charles Best has had mega-celebrities offer to pay off certain technology projects or art projects. By going outside of the school’s social network, Simo’s teachers have gotten many of the resources they need, including Chromebooks.

Teachers’ Perspectives

Teacher Kimberly Huchel needed some of the basics for her home economics and life skills classes at CMS, things such as quality kitchen knives, cutting boards, and mixing bowls.

“Having DonorsChoose is like having a genie in a bottle!” she says. “I have been able to create several projects ranging from $500 up to $1,500 that have been fully funded so far for my life-skills classroom, and it was a quick and simple process.” The benefit to her students and classroom has been incredible. She has applied for and received new appliances, chef’s tools, and new dishes for each kitchen. Her students even appreciate the help. “They are eager to send out thank-you notes to the donors who fund our projects,” she says. “There are so many generous people who are willing to help teachers and give our students the best possible chance at learning, and DonorsChoose has been monumental in helping me get what I need for my students.”

CMS choir director Aspen Bue had two projects fully funded through DonorsChoose. Both included new audio/sound equipment so that the choirs could perform at school. For the first project, she requested two condenser microphones, two mic stands, and two mic cables for a total of $1,698.07. It took 17 days from the time she submitted the project for it to be fully funded, and she received the items nine days later. For her second project, Bue requested two powered floor monitors with repair plans for a total of $1,329.92. That project was fully funded in 18 days, and she received the items 18 days later.

In the past two to three years, DonorsChoose has fully funded more than $30,000 in projects at CMS. Simo says one of his proudest moments happened when he was receiving the 2018 Colorado State Principal of the Year award—but it wasn’t winning the award. He was thrilled to learn at the ceremony that CMS was ranked No. 1 in utilizing DonorsChoose. Simo had always relied upon grants and fundraisers to supplement his budget, but now he had a third funding source. He knew that his teachers were getting the resources that they needed, and DonorsChoose was a part of that.

Finding Funds for Projects

DonorsChoose allows teachers to submit a request for funds for a particular project. The first time a teacher applies for a project, the application process is a bit more labor intensive, but that’s because the organization does a thorough vetting of the project. They contact the principal. They contact the teacher. They make sure the teacher is real, the school is real, the principal is real, and the project is real. The money goes directly to the requested project. A principal cannot request a project, and a teacher cannot just request a certain amount of money—they must prove that the money is going to a specific project.

Both Huchel and Bue say that the process is simple and straightforward. “It only takes a few minutes to write up descriptions about your school, what your project will be used for, and how it will benefit students,” Bue says. Both teachers said the hardest part for them was narrowing down what supplies they wanted and needed. After they received the materials purchased with donated funds, they took pictures showcasing how the materials were used, and the students wrote thank-you notes for each donor. “The whole process has been a great experience. My first projects were big ones, and I’m only encouraged to keep dreaming big for future projects,” Bue says.

Professional Development

One area of great need at CMS is professional development funding, Simo says. For staff to attend professional development conferences means an hours-long drive over the Rocky Mountains, which can be even longer and more difficult in inclement weather. Of course, the school can’t justify the cost of flying faculty to conferences, but DonorsChoose has changed this dynamic. Now DonorsChoose accepts applications and will sponsor teachers to go to professional development workshops.

Simo believes that CMS being named as a “School to Watch” by the Colorado Association of Middle Level Education was a direct result of the projects the school has had funded by DonorsChoose. Without having to worry so much about how to get funding or materials, the faculty and administration can concentrate on providing the quality teaching, rigorous curriculum, and character-based education that they have committed to for their students.

Christine Savicky is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.